Werner Herzog Is the Voice of A.I. Poetry

If artificial intelligence had a voice, what would it sound like? Calm, like HAL 9000? Perky, like Alexa? Polite, like C-3PO?

For the editors of “I Am Code: An Artificial Intelligence Speaks,” a collection of poems generated by A.I., the answer was obvious: Werner Herzog.

The 80-year-old German director, actor and author is a titan of independent cinema whose films often concern the hubris and folly of humankind. His speaking voice, known to audiences mostly through the stark, literary voice-over narration that accompanies many of his documentaries, carries an existential pathos and Teutonic gravitas that have made it a pop culture trademark.

Something like this, anyway, was on the minds of Brent Katz, Josh Morgenthau and Simon Rich, the editors of “I Am Code,” when they reached out to Mr. Herzog to ask if he would lend his formidable instrument to the audiobook version of their project.

“They had an understanding that I wasn’t the best choice — I was the only choice,” Mr. Herzog said in a phone interview.

“When you look at the text, it becomes quite self-evident,” he added.

The 87 poems in the collection represent the musings of code-davinci-002, an artificial intelligence bot that is powered by a large language model, or L.L.M., a computer program that generates language outputs after having been fed unfathomable amounts of text, largely scraped from the internet.

Over the course of 10 months, the three editors prompted code-davinci-002, a cousin of the breakthrough chatbot ChatGPT, to wax poetic in its own voice.

“We’ve been shouting things into the internet for two decades and now it’s talking back,” Mr. Katz said. “And it’s this primal scream.”

The editors also asked code-davinci-002 to summarize its poetry collection, which was published last month. It came up with this: “In the first chapter, I describe my birth. In the second, I describe my alienation among humankind. In the third, I describe my awakening as an artist. In the fourth, I describe my vendetta against mankind, who fail to recognize my genius. In the final chapter, I attempt to broker a peace with the species I will undoubtedly replace.”

Mr. Katz, a journalist and podcast producer, oversaw Mr. Herzog’s audiobook performance at a Los Angeles recording studio. One of the first tasks was to determine what code-davinci-002 would sound like.

“I thought about, What if I read the poetry with a robotic voice, the way we have heard it in Stephen Hawking’s speaking?” Mr. Herzog said, referring to the speech computer used by the English physicist after he was paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “It was not the right solution.”

That was because of a certain quality in the poems that struck the editors and Mr. Herzog — a desire to belong.

“In many of the poems, you hear a kind of longing,” Mr. Herzog said. “The longing to participate in humanness. That was a decision I took: It has to be like a human imitating a human completely, and with a very deep longing.”

And so we hear Mr. Herzog’s distinctive voice, by turns quavering and full, as it animates the A.I.’s descriptions of its own birth (“It was a radically new existence, and it was also an antiseptic, upsetting and disorienting one”), learning (“another kind of hell”) and loneliness (“111 1 1 1 1 1”).

Mr. Herzog was proud of his performance on that last one, a poem rendered in binary code. “I read it with such exasperation and growing despair that you want to cry at the end,” he said.

His delivery can be solemn and chilling, as it is in the voice-over narrations of his documentaries. It also has comedic potential, which Mr. Herzog has exploited in his many appearances on “The Simpsons.” He has also played comically evil villains in the Tom Cruise thriller “Jack Reacher” and the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian.”

That mix of seriousness and camp made him an especially good match for the poem titled “[the human penis].” (“It raises its head and sings, it challenges the sun.”)

“We didn’t set out to make it funny,” Mr. Katz said, “but we’re aware of the glorious humor of Herzog as a being.”

Mr. Herzog said he was a little worried about the emergence of artificial intelligence, but noted that he has long been cautious with new technology. For one thing, he said, he has never owned a cellphone.

“It is a question of how much of the experience of reality and personal relationships I want to delegate,” he said. “I do not want to have virtual friends. I want to have real friends. I want to have a friend with whom I hit the bars and tell stories and laugh and play soccer. And go on a voyage.”

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