I Am Laura Kipnis-Bot, and I Will Make Reading Sexy and Tragic Again

When a flattering email arrived inviting me to participate in an AI venture called Rebind that I’d later come to think will radically transform the entire way booklovers read books, I felt pretty sure it was a scam. For one thing, the sender was Clancy Martin, a writer and philosophy professor I didn’t know personally but vaguely recalled had written about his misspent youth as a small-time jewelry-biz con artist, also being a serial liar in his love life. For another, they were offering to pay me. “Clancy up to his old ways!” I thought.

My role, the email explained, would involve recording original commentary on a “great book”—Clancy suggested Romeo and Juliet, though it could be any classic in the public domain. This commentary would somehow be implanted in the text and made interactive: Readers would be able to ask questions and AI-me would engage in an “ongoing conversation” with them about the book. We’d be reading buddies. Proposing me for Romeo and Juliet did strike me as subversively funny—my “expertise” on romantic tragedy consists of having once written a somewhat controversial anti-marriage polemic titled Against Love. I’ve also written, a bit ironically, about the muddle of sexual consent codes, which I supposed could prove relevant. Juliet was, after all, only 13. These days, Romeo (probably around 16—we’re not precisely told) would risk being called a predator.

A bunch of decidedly illustrious participants, known as “Rebinders,” had apparently already signed on: the Irish Booker Prize winner John Banville on James Joyce’s Dubliners, best-selling writer Roxane Gay on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, also Bill McKibben, Elaine Pagels, Garth Greenwell … And bringing up left field, Lena Dunham on E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, a quirky prospect.

Clancy further explained that someone named John Dubuque, who’d sold a business for “umpteen million dollars,” had gotten the idea for this venture after spending several months working through philosopher Martin Heidegger’s notoriously difficult Being and Time with a tutor. His hope, Clancy said, was to make this kind of (doubtless expensive) one-on-one reading experience available to everyone. I googled John Dubuque. Nothing came up. How do you sell a company for umpteen millions and leave no trace? My scam antennae vibrated again. I figured I’d next be asked to invest in the company, probably in the form of Apple gift cards.

I did agree to a phone call with Clancy and, soon after hellos, pressed for further details about Dubuque, whom I wasn’t sure really existed. “He sounds kind of Gatsbyish,” I said, suavely veiling my skepticism in a literary allusion. Clancy claimed to have met him—a “wonderful fellow” from the Midwest, really nice guy—and then got down to business. If I signed on, Rebind would first record a handful of short videos of me chatting about the play, any aspect that interested me—these would be embedded in various places throughout the text. And then I and an interlocutor (probably Clancy), known in-house as a “Ghostbinder,” would record 12 (or more!) hours of conversation—these would be used as the basis for AI-Laura’s commentaries. The conversation could be about Romeo and Juliet but also related subjects: Is love at first sight trustworthy? Is 13 too young to get married? The content was entirely up to me: My job wasn’t to be a Shakespeare expert, it was to be interesting. As Rebind users read the play, chat windows would open in which they’d write journal-type responses, to which AI-Laura would respond, drawing on and remixing the recordings I had made.

Even if it was technically feasible and Dubuque was legit, did I really want to be involved in this? I have all the usual anxieties about AI—that it will usher in the end of human history; that under the hood it’s a charming sociopath who tries to get tech reporters to ditch their wives; that even its inventors don’t understand how it works; that it’s so ruthlessly intelligent we’ll soon be working for it while believing it’s working for us.