magic tricks
November 18, 2014

Artificial Intelligence Creates Its Own Magic Tricks

Eric Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Have you ever wanted to be a magician? Here's your big chance, courtesy of a neat bit of artificial intelligence (AI) and a smartphone app. It won’t exactly turn you into an instant David Blaine or Dynamo. It might not enable you to pull a rabbit out of a shiny top hat or saw your beautiful assistant in half. But you should be able to fool some of the people some of the time with some cool card tricks or a magic jigsaw puzzle.

Some people seem to have fun jobs and, if this “playing with magic” work is anything to go by, there are a bunch of scientists at Queen Mary University of London who probably can’t wait to get to work every day. They have been working on a way to get a computer to produce its own variation on some familiar conjuring tricks.

The researchers fed information into a computer program about how a magic jigsaw puzzle and a “mind reading” card trick work. They also built in the results of experiments into how humans understand magic tricks. The system then created completely new variants on those old magic tricks. Hey Presto! New tricks for old ones thanks to artificial intelligence!

The QMUL team say that the new tricks rely on the use of mathematical techniques rather than “sleight of hand or other theatrics.” Details of the research were published on Monday November 17th in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The magic puzzle was also on sale in a London magic shop where it apparently proved very popular with working magicians. The card trick itself is available as an app called 'Phoney' in the Google Play Store.

Howard Williams, co-creator of the project, described the way AI could help magicians come up with new ideas. "Computer intelligence can process much larger amounts of information and run through all the possible outcomes in a way that is almost impossible for a person to do on their own. So while, a member of the audience might have seen a variation on this trick before, the AI can now use psychological and mathematical principles to create lots of different versions and keep audiences guessing,” he said.

The computer also produced a magic jigsaw. Using what the QMUL team call a “clever geometric principle,” the trick involves taking a jigsaw apart and then reassembling it so that certain shapes have disappeared. This type of trick can involve highly complex calculations involving many simultaneous factors including the size of the puzzle, the number of pieces and shapes that appear and disappear, as well as the numerous possible ways the puzzle might be arranged. As the creators say, “Something this complex is ideal for an algorithm to process, and make decisions about which flexible factors are most important.”

The app looks like a lot of fun. It mimics the way a magician might perform a similar mind reading card trick. But using the app means that “magician” (that’s you and I, of course) does not have to remember the order of the cards.

A deck of playing cards is arranged in a specific way. A few “seemingly innocuous” pieces of information are gathered from the subject who is then asked to choose and identify a card from the deck. The Android app then reveals the card on a mobile phone screen. Because of the way the computer was used to arrange the decks, the correct card could be identified with the minimum of information. In fact the program was able to suggest deck arrangements that, on average, needed one less question to identify the card than a traditional magician would need.

There is a serious side to all this wizardry. QMUL’s Professor Peter McOwan, said “Using AI to create magic tricks is a great way to demonstrate the possibilities of computer intelligence and it also forms a part of our research in to the psychology of being a spectator. For example, we suspected that audiences would be suspicious of the involvement of technology in the delivery of a trick but we’ve found out that isn’t the case.”

A copy of the jigsaw product has been archived in the library of the Magic Circle in London. The scientists believe there are many further possible areas for similar research. These could include applications for stage magic, for example where they say “The perpetual effects of shading or unusual body position may be included.” Other possibilities are “large scale tricks on social media platforms, and close up magic that relies on particular attributes of the human visual system, for example through the modelling of misdirection or sensory illusions.”

The ‘Phoney’ app can be downloaded from Google Play Store.

The jigsaw puzzle trick can be downloaded for you to recreate.

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