The machine sits next to the deli counter, towering above the stacked cardboard boxes near the entrance to Nolita’s iconic magazine store. It’s built like a stand-up washer-dryer, with black buttons on the white front, rows of blinking lights and gauges marked with celestial bodies — “Sun,” “Moon” and eight planets.
“It’s probably something from NASA,” said Tim Wiedmann, a 27-year-old student from Germany, who visited the store on a Wednesday evening in June.
When Mr Widman stands in front of the machine, the machine’s front screen instructs him to “Ask the Stars”. He cycled through about 100 questions using the knob. Among them: How can I do my job better? Should I leave New York? Should I start a cult?
After selecting the question, Mr. Widman entered his date, time and place of birth. A message flashed on the screen, reading in part: “All answers are based on astrological calculations.” The machine took a picture of him using a built-in camera. After a while, it spits out a sheet of paper with his grainy portrait and the answers to his questions.
“It was like someone was there,” said Mr. Widman, one of the many people who came to use the machine that night. Sometimes, long lines start forming in stores as people wait to turn. Many visitors said they had heard about the machine on TikTok, including two 19-year-old students.
“I asked for red flags,” one student said of his choice of questions before another read aloud the machine-printed answers.
She says: “Your red flags include a tendency to set high expectations and a fear of conflict. Your Jupiter and Saturn placements indicate your need for perfectionism and fear of rejection. By avoiding conflict, you may limit your growth and the potential for meaningful connection. Remember that conflict is an inherent part of intimacy. Practice it with compassion and let go of unrealistic expectations.”
Like most of the people who used the machine that night, he and she were initially unaware that its answers were generated using artificial intelligence, including ChatGPT and GPT-3.
The machine was developed by Co-Star, a technology company that owns a popular astrology app that uses artificial intelligence to generate readings. It will be featured at Iconic Magazines for the better part of the summer before moving to Los Angeles later this year.
For centuries, astrologers have referenced the movements and positions of the planets and other celestial bodies to inform readings and astrology. Co-Star follows a similar approach, but its daily readings are prepared by an AI that pulls text from a database compiled for the app by a team of astrologers and poets.
The machine, which is free to use, was created to promote Co-Star’s new in-app service, The Void, which starts at about $1. The service functions like a machine: Users can ask open-ended questions that aren’t usually addressed in app astrology readings and receive answers generated by artificial intelligence using a text database prepared by Co-Star.
Co-Star founder Banu Guler, 35, cited a range of aesthetic inspirations for the machine, including Soviet-era computers, equipment used by NASA, photo booths and vending machines and washing machines. It was also influenced by Zolta fortune-telling machines, which were once common sights on boardwalks and arcades, she said.
“The best part is you can read something,” Ms. Guller said of the Zoltar machine. “And then you put what you read on the fridge, or in your book, or in your journal, or it just lingers in the bottom of your bag for months, if you’re me.”
“Even though you know it’s trash, it’s special trash,” she added, with a smirk on her face.
Before founding Co-Star in 2017, Ms. Guler worked in technology for art and fashion companies. At the time, she said, she used artificial intelligence to predict how certain factors, such as the weather on auction day, might affect the sale price of an artwork. She later developed Co-Star using the artificial intelligence knowledge she learned.
“It was like, how does this fit into astrology?” she said.
“Astrology is not a perfect science, but there is no such thing as a perfect science, and I don’t say that in an anti-scientific way,” Ms Guller added. “I don’t believe science is perfect, and I don’t believe anything else is perfect, because humans are imperfect. It’s cool. It’s beautiful, to be honest.”
Vijender Sharma, an astrologer who has worked in northern India for 35 years and specializes in Vedic astrology, said he has used the software to prepare readings. He stated that since astrology is based on science, he sees no harm in using the technology as long as the AI is trained with the proper knowledge.
Susan Miller, a New York astrologer who has studied astrology for decades, is skeptical. “AI is exciting for things like splitting atoms,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t believe that such technology often involves human emotion in practice. “Machines make mistakes,” Ms. Miller said. “The person who gets the answer may walk around with the wrong answer forever.”
Nisarga Kadam, 23, who works in fintech in New York, was also skeptical of its AI-generated answers after checking out a Co-Star machine in a magazine store.
“It’s a bunch of trained words put together,” Ms Kadam said. “It’s not personal.”
Anna Jonska, a 26-year-old New York-based video director, thinks just the opposite. Ms Joneska said she was not a huge fan of astrology, and the machine’s use of artificial intelligence made her trust it even more.
“I’m more inclined to believe an old lady leaning on a crystal ball is lying to me than a computer,” she said.