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Using AI, cartoonist Amy Kurzweil connects with deceased grandfather in ‘Artificial’

Marissa Leshnov for NPR

Listen to Artificial on NPR’s Book of the Day Podcast

A visionary story of three generations of creators whose search for meaning and connection transcends the limits of life

How do we relate to—and hold—our family’s past? Is it through technology? Through spirit? Art, poetry, music? Or is it through the resonances we look for in ourselves?

In Artificial, we meet the Kurzweils, a family of creators who are preserving their history through unusual means. At the center is renowned inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who has long been saving the documents of his deceased father, Fredric, an accomplished conductor and pianist from Vienna who fled the Nazis in 1938.

Once, Fred’s life was saved by his art: an American benefactor, impressed by Fred’s musical genius, sponsored his emigration to the United States. He escaped just one month before Kristallnacht.

Now, Fred has returned. Through AI and salvaged writing, Ray is building a chatbot that writes in Fred’s voice, and he enlists his daughter, cartoonist Amy Kurzweil, to help him ensure the immortality of their family’s fraught inheritance.

Amy’s deepening understanding of her family’s traumatic uprooting resonates with the creative life she fights to claim in the present, as Amy and her partner, Jacob, chase jobs, and each other, across the country. Kurzweil evokes an understanding of accomplishment that centers conversation and connection, knowing and being known by others. 

With Kurzweil’s signature humanity and humor, in boundary-pushing, gorgeous handmade drawings, Artificial guides us through nuanced questions about art, memory, and technology, demonstrating that love, a process of focused attention, is what grounds a meaningful life.

Praise for ARTIFICIAL

An NPR Best Books of 2023, A New Yorker Best Books of 2023, A Kirkus Best Nonfiction and Best Feel-Good Reads of 2023

*Starred Reviews* from Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist

Chicago Tribune: A Top Pick for Fall, Publishers Weekly: A Top 10 Graphic Memoir of Fall, Kirkus Reviews: A Most Anticipated Book, A Nonfiction Must-Read for Fall, Boston Globe: 20 Books for Fall

“Intimate reflections and powerful visual elements combine in an exemplary work of graphic nonfiction.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[Kurzweil] reconstructs archival materials in graphic form, including her grandfather’s correspondence, newspaper clippings, photographs, and memories. This gives the work a collage effect, which works beautifully . . . Kurzweil’s highly recommended memoir is unlike any other. It will leave readers with much to contemplate.” Library Journal (starred review)

“Magnificently complex and dizzyingly astute…Kurzweil has attempted nothing less than to apprehend life’s deepest mysteries… The ambition of her questions could only be matched by her filmic approach to drawn narrative.” Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Hyperallergic

“A breathtaking graphic memoir, Artificial is also a tender family story and a meditation on how art, technology, and memory keep people alive.” Francie Lin, The Boston Globe

Artificial is a big book full of big ideas about identity, heritage, and technology. In that sense, it couldn’t be more timely. Yet perhaps most essential is its attempt to reckon with what we mean to one another and the extent to which love can truly matter when we are all destined to disappear.” David L. Ulin, Journal of Alta California

“Even as [Kurzweil] presents complicated concepts (because technology—and Kurzweil!), she deftly enables accessible understanding. Her inviting art is as intricate as photos and screenshots . . . and as simple as a few lines . . . The questions inspire imagination, invention, and intriguing interaction.” Booklist (starred review)

“Kurzweil’s attentiveness is an act of devotion.” Naomi Elias, KQED

“Part meditation on immortality, part profile of the author’s father—inventor and artificial intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil—this finely crafted graphic family memoir from New Yorker cartoonist Kurzweil takes an intimate approach to philosophy . . . This melancholic yet loving investigation gets at how AI is as much about the past and what humanity has already created as it is about the future.” Publishers Weekly

“A thought-provoking examination of family and identity, artificial intelligence, and the nature of creativity . . . Even those with little interest in AI will connect with the desire to feel known and loved, across time and distance and even across generations . . . A wide-ranging and intellectual memoir, one that insists on the growth that comes through uncertainty.” Shelf Awareness

“Kurzweil’s extraordinary graphic memoir is a story about memory, family, immortality, artificial intelligence, love and consciousness itself. Far-reaching and fascinating.” Roz Chast, New Yorker cartoonist

“Powerful, tender, and complex, Kurzweil’s Artificial: A Love Story strikes all the chords. In her drawings, she visualizes the vivid simultaneous perceptions that go into consciousness in a way that feels strikingly accurate. In the story, she pushes past the blank wall one usually hits when trying to fathom death—and plainly asks the questions we wish, more than anything, we could answer.” Liana Finck, author of Let There Be Light

“Hilarious, heady, and full of feeling, Artificial tells the history of an exceptionally compelling family—a conductor grandfather, a futurist father, an artist daughter and granddaughter—through the lens of technology, art, and memory. Amy Kurzweil draws her way through big questions (What is genius? What is love?) with so much open-hearted wisdom that I wanted to follow her right off the page. It’s a rare artist who can so eloquently move between the personal and the metaphysical: This book is beautiful, strange, and belongs on your bookshelf forever.” Kristen Radtke, author of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness

“With her masterful counterbalancing of intricacy and simplicity, repetition and surprise, subtle detail and stark contrast, Kurzweil is at the peak of her powers as a cartoonist. Artificial is a poignant record of a daughter’s clear-eyed devotion to her quixotic genius of a father, of her finding true love despite everything, and of the sources of her own quirky gift for conquering time and space with nothing more than paper, pencil and ink. I absolutely adored this book.” Michael Chabon, author of Moonglow

“Thoughtful, touching, and profoundly human. Artificial invites us to think and feel deeply about the nature of human connection, and the forces—and people—that give shape to our lives. A beautiful story, told beautifully.” Brian Christian, bestselling author of The Most Human Human and The Alignment Problem

Artificial: A Love Story is an incandescent memoir that manages to be both personal and philosophical. Kurzweil writes with soul and wit about the often slippery relationship between art and artifice, past and future, our embodied limitations, and the thoroughly human desire for transcendence. It’s a story that left me feeling more alive for having encountered it, and more attentive to the patterns of meaning that make us who we are.” Meghan O’Gieblyn, author of God, Human, Animal, Machine