The machine stood next to a deli counter, elevated above cardboard boxes stacked near the entrance to the Iconic Magazines store in NoLIta. It had a washer-dryer niche, with black buttons, and rows of blinking lights and scales depicted as celestial bodies—”the sun,” “the moon,” and the eight planets—on the front of the white facade.
“It could be something from NASA,” said Tim Weidmann, a 27-year-old German student who visited the store on a Wednesday night in June.
As Mr. Weidman stood in front of the machine, its front screen directed him to “Ask the Stars.” Using a handle, he cycled through about 100 questions. Among them: How do I improve at my job? Should I leave New York? Should I start a cult?
After selecting a question, Mr. Weidmann entered his date, time, and place of birth. The screen flashes a message that reads in part: “All answers are based on astrological calculations.” The machine captured his image using a built-in camera. Moments later, he spat out a piece of paper containing his beloved picture and the answer to his question.
“It’s like there’s someone there,” said Mr. Weidmann, who was one of many who came to use the device that night. Sometimes lines started running through the store as people waited for a turn. Many visitors said they had heard about the device on TikTok, including two 19-year-olds.
“You asked about my red flags,” one student said of his chosen question, before the other student read aloud the answer printed on the machine.
She said, “Your red flags include a tendency to set high expectations and a fear of conflict. The position of Jupiter and Saturn indicates a need for perfection and a fear of rejection. By avoiding conflict, you may be limiting your potential for growth and meaningful connections. Remember that conflict is an integral part of intimacy Practice it with compassion and get rid of unrealistic expectations.”
Like most people who used the device that night, he or she didn’t initially know that her answers were generated using artificial intelligence, including ChatGPT and GPT-3.
The device was developed by Co-Star, a tech company with a buzzy astrology app that uses artificial intelligence to generate readings. He’ll be at Iconic Magazines most of the summer and then move to Los Angeles later this year.
For centuries, astrologers have referred to the movement and positions of planets and other celestial bodies to inform readings and horoscopes. Co-Star follows similar routes, but its daily readings are made by AI that pulls text from a database written for the app by a team of astrologers and poets.
The device, which was free to use, was created to promote Co-Star’s new in-app service, The Void, which starts at about $1. The service works similar to the device: Users can ask open-ended questions that aren’t normally addressed in the app’s astrological readings and receive AI-generated answers using Co-Star’s database of prepared text.
Banu Guler, 35, founder of Co-Star, named a raft of machine aesthetic inspirations, including Soviet-era computers, appliances used by NASA, photo booths, vending machines and washing machines. She said she was also influenced by the Zoltar divination machines that were once a popular attraction in boardwalks and arcades.
“The best part is that you get to read a little bit,” Ms. Goller said of Zoltar’s machines. “Then you put your reading on your fridge, in your book, in your journal, or just hang out in the bottom of your bag for months, if that were me.”
“Although you know it’s rubbish, it’s private rubbish,” she added with a smirk.
Before starting 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 the auction date, would affect the sale price of an artwork. I later drew on what I learned about AI to develop Co-Star.
“It was like, How can this fit into astrology?” She said.
“Astrology is not a perfect science, but there is also no perfect science, which I don’t say in an anti-scientific way,” Ms. Guler added. “I don’t think science is perfect, and I don’t think anything else is perfect, because humans are imperfect. And that’s great. Like, really, it’s beautiful.”
Vijinder Sharma, a 35-year-old North Indian astrologer who specializes in Vedic astrology, said he used software to prepare the readings. He said that since astrology was a science, as long as the AI was trained with the appropriate knowledge, he saw no harm in using the technology.
Susan Miller, a New York astrologer who has written horoscopes for decades, was more skeptical. “Artificial intelligence is exciting for things like splitting atoms,” she said, adding that she would not trust such technology in a practice that often deals with human emotions. “Machines make mistakes,” said Ms. Miller. “And the person who gets the answer may be wandering around with that wrong answer in their head forever.”
After examining the Co-Star device in the magazine store, Nisarga Kadam, 23, who works in fintech in New York, was also skeptical of the AI-generated answers.
“It’s a bunch of trained words strung together,” Ms. Kadam said. “It’s not personal.”
Anna Gonska, 26, a video director in New York, felt the opposite. Ms Jonska said she is not a big fan of astrology and that the machine’s use of artificial intelligence has made her trust her more.
“I would be more inclined to believe that an old lady leaning on a crystal ball is lying to me than a computer,” she said.