“I think the technology-driven lack of sleep is a big problem and having widespread mental health effects,” writes C Boucher (better known as the musician Grimes) over email as we discuss her latest project. It’s called “AI Lullaby,” and it’s a scientifically engineered sleep soundscape that just launched on Endel.
It was C (the artist recently announced her new name) who approached Endel’s team of artists and developers about a collaboration after she tried their app, which boasts over two million downloads. “I just appreciated that the app isn’t addictive. It doesn’t keep you up on your phone. Instead it actually helps you sleep,” she says of its A.I.-customized sound environments with functions like Focus, Sleep, and Relaxation. Within the app, users can select a desired mode to match their current activity. Focus, for example, sounds like spacey keyboards and chimes designed to facilitate zoning in to a task. For “AI Lullaby,” C’s vocals float from soothing “aaaaaah…” ranges to an indistinguishable language that sometimes sounds like she’s saying “hi, baby” (the project was inspired, in part, by her experience as a new mom). The level of artificial intelligence that’s in play can be customized via “Real-Time Inputs,” where tracking can be turned on or off for details like current location, heart rate, and light exposure. It’s all meant to help your brain operate at effortless peak performance, something called Endel calls “tech-aided bodily function” in their manifesto.
According to Endel, the ultimate goal is improving global wellbeing. Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry shared in May that anxiety is a “prime contributor to sleep difficulty.” This direct relationship means that as anxiety rises with political uncertainty, economic unrest, and almost a year of pandemic-related distress, so does insomnia. They suggest a possible benefit from “meditation or ‘mindfulness’ exercises.” The Dalai Lama, often credited with the quote “sleep is the best meditation,” discusses incorporating technology and spiritual practice for a “great contribution for entire humanity” in a 2011 documentary short. A decade later, the concept is mainstream.
“The world really needs this right now. Not just the U.S. with the election cycle, but here we literally just got news that Germany is going into a partial lockdown,” says Endel CEO Oleg Stavitsky on a Zoom call joined by Nadya Yurinova, CMO, from their Berlin headquarters. “We practice mindfulness meditation–but we have to remember that this is a very elitist thing these days.” Beyond the expense of classes, retreats, and apps (a lifetime Endel subscription is $89.99), time is money. “You have to have the luxury to commit that time to meditate every single day. So our approach is something completely different: we create this soundscape that follows you everywhere, and it affects your cognitive state without you having to do anything,” he says. “We’re hopefully democratizing access to this sense of being present–and when you are present, you’re able to notice the beautiful things around you.”
The format of “AI Lullaby” is based on the same neuroscience as Endel’s core Sleep Mode. To test its effectiveness, they implement the Experience Sampling Method designed by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University and author of the best-selling book Flow. Csíkszentmihályi even coined the term “flow,” which is now recognized in psychology as “a cognitive state where one is completely immersed in an activity.” Through the Experience Sampling Method, users were surveyed to evaluate their state of flow; they reported exponential decreases in anxiety and increases in concentration after using Endel’s soundscapes. To continue verifying the tech, Endel is working with a brainwave measurement company, as well as SleepScore Labs. The latter’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Roy Raymann, previously helped Apple develop sleep features like Night Shift and Bedtime. Stavitsky notes that Dr. Raymann offers research on “which sounds help you go to sleep faster, which sounds help you not wake up during the night—all of that science is applied to the ‘AI Lullaby’ soundscape as well.”
When I ask what drew her to Endel’s methods, C shares a sentiment relatable to anyone with a smartphone: “I love the movement towards, as you say, ‘humane technology.’ I really appreciate the work of Tristan Harris and the center for humane technology…” C writes. “They’re doing cool stuff.” Harris is among those offering a voice of reason in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, which spotlights how Big Tech companies are collecting personal data (considered one of the world’s most valuable resources, comparable to oil or gold) and using it for undisclosed purposes. Endel emphasizes that they respect data privacy. “We’re dealing with your location, we’re dealing with your heart rate, we’re dealing with your movement, your exposure to natural light—but we’re putting all of this information to use in order to meaningfully improve your life, not to serve you personalized ads,” Stavitsky explains. “Actually, all of your data is currently processed on the device, so we’re not even sharing that with our servers.” Within the app, personalized data can be deleted with a tap. “It is our responsibility, I would say, and she would say, to steer this in the right direction,” he says of conversations with C about A.I. ethics. “I’m positive that our evolution depends on this.”
Instead of submitting a completed song, C worked with sound designer and composer Dmitry Evgrafov to deliver a series of “stems,” or short samples of different noises, that act as sonic building blocks. Funneled into the company’s Endel Pacific technology, the audio combines with personalized data so the “AI Lullaby” experience is bespoke and slightly different every time—into infinity. “It’s a perfect match,” Yurinova says of working with C. “She’s not only a music artist, but experimenting across disciplines and exploring the fields of visual arts and technology, and this is really relevant for what we’re doing here and what kind of team we are,” she says. “It was cool seeing the A.I. learn and get better based off feedback because at first it wasn’t as nice,” C remembers. “But then I also reacted to it after it first started making stuff and went back to the drawing board to better suit its strengths. It was fun vibing out with a computer like that.”
With a sense of reassurance that my identity wouldn’t be used for dark digital dealings, I downloaded the app via a promo code. My first experience with a digital sleep aid was via Omvana in 2013, when I was interviewing for Vogue. After cobbling together every last clean piece of clothing and handwriting thank-you notes, I would drift away each night to voices telling me to envision a lavender light surrounding my body, promising that I could do anything I imagined. Navigating to “AI Lullaby,” the art that C designed with Endel’s visual director Protey Temen pops onto the screen. Its minimal animation looks like rays of energy around a drowsy, floating face. The sound is familiar, like scenes in Disney films when giant trees glow from unexplained magic. I wonder if Disney already harnessed some of these psychoacoustic findings in their award-winning soundtracks. A little before midnight, I play the lullaby and fall asleep so quickly I can’t be sure if it’s just exhaustion.
Committed to an early bedtime of 10:30 p.m. the following night, I put the soundscape on again, this time with my husband, Cody, as a willing test subject. As the synths and airy vocals come through his speakerphone, I ask if it’s too loud, if we should turn it down a little. He’s already asleep. Less than five minutes have passed. Cody can be quick to drift off, though, which he points out in the morning, adding that he likes the noises Endel emits once it’s time to get up. When I play the lullaby next, I fall into a dream where I’m seated at an awards show with my mom, who passed away five years ago. Laughing in the audience, I’m leaning my head on her shoulder, feeling proud. Eventually, we’re both snoozing as nominees are being announced. We talk about going home. I wake up without an alarm, feeling happy.
“AI Lullaby” will be on Endel until December 23rd.