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Computers Can Now Perform Magic Tricks Thanks to Artificial Intelligence

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Add “magician” to the list of careers that may one day be overtaken by computers. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London successfully taught artificial intelligence to fool human onlookers with magic tricks. Specifically, a puzzle illusion and a “mind reading” trick.

The researchers’ goal was to see how magic can be assisted when “human intelligence is replaced or assisted by machine intelligence,” Howard Williams and Peter W. McOwan, the project’s leaders, write in the journal Frontiers. Of course, magic tricks are as much smoke and mirrors as they are skillful sleight of hand, and since a computer program doesn’t have much of a stage presence and can’t trick you with theatrics, researchers gave it another, fool-proof magical tool to work with: math.

For its first trick, the computer fooled spectators’ eyes with a jigsaw puzzle covered in images that seem to increase and decrease in number depending on how the puzzle is arranged. The trick is based on what’s called “The Principle of Concealed Distribution.” By redistributing one small section of one shape among other shapes, you can make it seem as though the total number of shapes changes without actually removing or adding any of the pieces. Sounds confusing, but watch:

These kinds of puzzles are complex for humans to perform, but a piece of cake for a computer wielding an algorithm. “It is typical to assume a jigsaw puzzle can be put together in only one way,” the researchers write. So, when we see this puzzle change before our eyes, our brain thinks we’ve observed something that isn’t physically possible, something magical.

Indeed, when researchers asked participants to explain the trick, some “reported having no idea how the trick worked.” Others guessed or said it was an optical illusion. The puzzle was so confounding, a version of it is now being successfully sold at a magic store in London, which has already asked for more to restock its shelves.

But optical illusions are paltry parlor tricks compared to the computer’s other skill: reading minds. The program, in the form of an Android app called Phoney, can accurately predict the number and suit of a single card plucked from a normal playing deck. It does this with a little cooperation from a human helper, who loads the deck by putting the cards in a specific pattern, which remains constant even when the deck is cut.

The pattern made it possible for a specific card to be identified with only a small amount of information to go on. And the app knows we have specific cards we prefer, like face cards, hearts and spades. A spectator chooses a card and tells the magician something about it, like its color. From there, based on the deck’s pattern and human preference, the app can accurately decipher which card was chosen. Watch:

In trials, researchers were surprised audiences weren’t more freaked out by the tricks. “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.” McOwan says.

The hope is that AI can help enhance the magic experience. “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,” Williams says. “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.”

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Anna Green
13 Fascinating Items From the History of Magic at the Conjuring Arts Library
Anna Green
Anna Green

Tucked away in the middle of a drab street in Midtown Manhattan, the Conjuring Arts Research Center holds more than 15,000 books, magazines, and artifacts related to magic and its allied arts, whether that means psychic phenomena, hypnosis, ventriloquism, or men who claim to vomit wine. Inside, posters and banners for Houdini and Alexander ("The Man Who Knows") compete with row after row of centuries-old books. Mental Floss visited recently and spoke to Executive Director William Kalush, who showed us some of the most interesting items the library has to offer.

1. HANDCUFFS OWNED BY HOUDINI

Handcuffs once owned by Houdini, now at the Conjuring Arts Library

These iron handcuffs were once part of Houdini's collection. They are reputed to have held Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, when he was hanged in 1882. Kalush is skeptical about that provenance, but says Houdini thought it was at least possible. (Houdini and Guiteau had a special connection: In 1906, the magician escaped from the Washington, D.C. jail that held Guiteau while he was awaiting execution.)

2. JOSEPH PINETTI BROADSIDE

A broadside devoted to magician Joseph Pinetti

One of the most celebrated magicians of the late 18th century, Joseph Pinetti was a former professor who sometimes presented his tricks as scientific experiments. Originally from Rome, he traveled all over Europe performing in flamboyant settings (he favored chandeliers and multiple changes of clothes), becoming particularly famous in Russia and France. This German broadside is from 1781, and Kalush says it's probably the earliest known broadside on the magician.

3. OPERA-NOVA

A Venetian pamphlet known as an Opera Nova at the Conjuring Arts Library

This unique Venetian pamphlet contains simple explanations of magic tricks, and would have once been sold door-to-door by a pamphleteer. Probably from around 1530, it's just one sheet of paper printed on both sides and folded twice, making eight little pages. "It's extremely rare to find examples of these kinds of pamphlets—they're almost never found in more than one example," Kalush says.

4. HOCUS POCUS JUNIOR: THE ANATOMY OF LEGERDEMAIN

Title page for Hocus pocus junior: The anatomie of legerdemain

This is an in-depth manual for magic originally written in 1634; the Conjuring Arts copy was printed about 20 years later. The title "Hocus Pocus Junior" is a reference to a famous early 17th-century performer named William Vincent, who used the stage name Hocus Pocus. "It's really just a play on words, like saying I'm the junior to his senior. William Vincent never wrote anything," Kalush explains. "But it's a wonderful book in English that's really a manual of how to do things. As opposed to the little pamphlet from Italy, it has really solid descriptions on methods. You could become a great magician just by reading Hocus Pocus Junior."

5. DECRETALS OF POPE BONIFACE VIII

The Decretals of Pope Boniface VIII

This 13th-century book of canon law (church law) included the decretals, or papal pronouncements, of Pope Boniface VIII—including laws against magic tricks. Though it was rare for such books to have illustrations, this one, printed in Venice in 1514, includes an image of a priest or monk doing the cups and balls trick. "The penalty [for doing magic tricks] was to lose your privileges and to be treated 'no better than a buffoon,'" Kalush says. "And the only other illustrated edition we've seen is from 1525, when the priest [performing cups and balls] has been demoted to buffoon, and is wearing a court jester-type outfit."

According to Kalush, Boniface VIII was particularly concerned about magic tricks because he'd used them to help secure the papacy, whispering the "word of God" through a long tube into his predecessor's ear to convince him to retire.

6. GIROLAMO SCOTTO MEDAL

A medal of magician Girolamo Scoto at the Conjuring Arts Library

Girolamo Scotto was an Italian entertainer, magician, and alchemist active in the last half of the 16th century who is said to have performed magic for Queen Elizabeth I, among other notables. This lead medal was produced from a wax sculpture by the famed Milanese sculptor Antonio Abondio toward the end of the 16th century. "In those days there were no such things as business cards, so he had this medal made," Kalush says. It was originally cast in various other metals too, including silver, bronze, and gold.

7. IL LABERINTO

Il Laberinto from Venice, 1607

This "mind-reading" book, printed in Venice in 1607, served as a prop for a trick in which the magician was able to guess an image chosen by the viewer and held in their mind (much like the familiar card trick). Another item the library holds—A Devotione Del Signore from Naples, 1617—is similar but uses religious iconography. "We suspect they used religious iconography because Naples was under Spanish rule, and closer to the Inquisition, than was Venice at that time," Kalush explains.

8. PICTAGORAS ARITHMETRICE INTRODUCTOR

Interior pages of Pictagoras Arithmetrice Introductor

Printed in 1491 in Florence, this work by mathematician Filippo Calandri was one of the first arithmetic books in the Italian language. As a treat, there were magic tricks in the back. "After you learned your arithmetic lessons, you were able to use those pages to do a little bit of mind-reading," Kalush says.

9. DIALOGO DI PIETRO ARETINO NEL QVALE SI PARLA DEL GIOCO CON MORALITA PIACEVOLE ("LE CARTE PARLANTI")

Le "Carte Parlanti"

This 1543 text, written by the noted satirist Pietro Aretino, is a dialogue between a deck of cards and a man who makes them. Meant simply as entertainment, "it talks about people who cheat, like a Spanish cheater who had a machine in his sleeve who would exchange good cards for bad cards, and other comments about card magic from the playing cards’ perspective," Kalush explains.

10. THE DISCOVERIE OF WITCHCRAFT

The discoverie of witchcraft

In 1584, a British justice of the peace named Reginald Scot published The discoverie of witchcraft, which argued that much of what appeared to be magic could be explained by sociological or psychological reasoning—or by simple sleight of hand. "It's not secular; he's not saying he doesn't believe it exists," Kalush says. "It's just that a lot of things that were being attributed to witchcraft are not." For example, Scot said that the guilt produced by those who denied funds to impoverished women may have led them to accuse those same women of dark, magical works. It's also the first important book of sleight of hand, according to Kalush, with substantial sections on coin magic, card magic, and other techniques that were popular at the time.

11. FALACIE OF THE GREAT WATER-DRINKER DISCOVERED

An interior illustration from the Falacie Of The Great Water-Drinker Discovered

This pamphlet from 1650 is about Floram Marchand, a man who would swallow gallons of water and then regurgitate it into a fountain, sometimes in multiple colors (he claimed it was wine, but in fact it was water dyed red with a Brazil nut solution). "It's quite interesting because it was written by Peedle and Cozbie [two English entrepreneurs], who learned the secret from the master, and as a thank-you they exposed the trick and published it," Kalush says.

12. EXPERT PLAYING CARDS

A photo of Expert Playing Cards arranged on a shelf at the Conjuring Arts Library

The Conjuring Arts Research Center, a non-profit, also runs the Expert Playing Card Company, devoted to producing high-quality playing cards. All proceeds benefit the 501(c)3. "Expert has produced hundreds of different custom-printed decks for many artists and magicians all over the world," Kalush says; recent examples include decks inspired by Greek mythology, Art Nouveau, Gothic architecture, and classical music.

13. GIBECIERE

Several copies of the magical journal Gibeciere, produced by the Conjuring Arts Research Center

The center has also been publishing their own scholarly journal, Gibeciere, since 2005. Its pages cover little-known details about famous historical magicians, tricks, devices, and manuscripts, with work from Spanish, Italian, French, German, and other languages translated in-house. "Many of the great magic historians have contributed," Kalush says. The journal is edited by Stephen Minch, who ran an "important magic publishing house for years that published some of the great books on magic."

The name Gibeciere is a reference to a type of bag medieval hunters would wear around their waists, later appropriated by magicians as a convenient place to keep their props. Minch choose the title, Kalush says, "since we hoped it would be a mixed bag of research and history."

All photos by Anna Green.

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17 Secrets of Magicians
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Whether they're performing a big illusion that makes a tiger disappear or showing off card tricks on a table, magicians spend years perfecting their performances. We spoke to several from across the country (and beyond) to find out how they learn their trade, the type of resource they spend thousands of dollars on, what they hate most at shows, and the one question they really wish you'd stop asking.

1. THEY DON'T GO TO MAGIC SCHOOL.

Surprise: There’s no Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry out there. "There's no real training," says Dave Taylor (a.k.a. Magic Dave) from Southend-on-Sea in England. "It's all personal experience, lecture notes, DVDs, books, etc. You can go to workshops, but for most things you have to be self-taught." One big asset, he notes, is a local magic club, which can provide feedback on shows.

Randy Follis, a magician from southwest Missouri, agrees: "The training is mostly independent. Researching books, DVDs, and—if you're fortunate enough to find them—fellow magicians." After that, all that's left is a lot of hard work and practice, practice, practice.

2. THEY SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON BOOKS.

“Most magicians are serious scholars," says Las Vegas magician Xavier Mortimer. "I don't know any professional magicians who don't have their own extensive libraries about our craft." (One notable example, Harry Houdini, assembled close to 4000 books on magic and spiritualism, now held at the Library of Congress.)

The costs of those books can add up, though: "Most books are small print runs, for a small audience, which can lead to high prices," Mortimor says. As an example, Denny Haney, who owns the Denny and Lee Magic Shop in Baltimore, Maryland, says that one book he sells—Soirees Fantastique by the French illusionist Christian Fechner—goes for $3000.

3. THEY MIGHT SPEND A YEAR PERFECTING ONE TRICK.

Magicians are nothing if not obsessive. Danny Whitson, a comedian and magician from Knoxville, Tennessee, says he spent a year in front of the mirror mastering one particular move. "It sounds insane," he says, "but a great magician is always learning."

All that rehearsing can take a toll on loved ones. "You spend most of your time rehearsing a trick over and over again, to the point where it annoys everyone else around you," Taylor says. "My wife threatened (jokingly) to leave me if I kept playing with a Rubik's Cube after I spent a solid two weeks learning the ins and outs of a trick."

4. THEY CAN EARN THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS PER GIG.

Magicians can earn more than you might think, but it depends on the type of gig. "Corporate gigs pay the most at $800 to $2500, then your bars, clubs, festivals $300 to $1000, and a birthday party $200 to $500," Whitson says.

While that might seem substantial, as Taylor notes, "you are self-employed, so you could work lots in a week and then the next two weeks have nothing. Then, there's the task of advertising yourself, administration, rehearsals, prop maintenance, etc., which take up your time. You might only have two shows in a week for two hours and get paid £500 [about $675], but you still work a full week doing everything else.”

5. THEY AREN'T ALLOWED TO HAVE BAD DAYS.

A happy magician showing a trick with playing cards
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"Being a pro magician basically means you are selling a product—yourself," Taylor says. "You have to convince your audience you are the best even when you don't feel like it." That means pulling through a bad show, or a bad day, with a smile: "If you're in an office you can be in a bad mood. If you are in front of hundreds of people performing that's another matter."

6. CONNECTING WITH THE AUDIENCE CAN BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE TRICKS.

Doc Eason, a legendary magician who performs at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass, Colorado, is known for his incredible memory; he does one trick where he memorizes the names of 20 people in the audience as well as a card held by each person. Despite the impressive feat, Eason says, “The trick is not the thing ... what is the thing is connecting with the audience. Without connection, you just become a clever person who learned to do a few cool things." Establishing that connection is a matter of eye contact and remembering the names of the people in the audience, Eason says—which requires plenty of practice in front of friends, family, and then strangers before taking to the stage.

7. THEY HATE CELL PHONES MORE THAN HECKLERS.

A person in a suit working magic on a cell phone
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Magicians have probably dealt with hecklers (“I know how you did that!”) since they first stood on a stage. But today’s electronics are considerably more annoying, performers say, what with people constantly recording the show, checking messages, or texting during performances. “Holding audience attention is increasingly difficult," Eason says. However, he doesn't ban cell phones, since that can "start a show on a hostile note."

Randy Forster, a magician from Delaware, handles the annoyances of technology by turning them into an opportunity for humor. He'll open a show with a comment like, “If you have any devices with you with an on-off button, such as a snow-blower or generator, please turn them off now.” Should someone’s phone ring, he’ll say, “We’ll just hold the show until you get that,” or “Put the phone on speaker so we can all hear.”

8. THEY'RE NOT ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL.

Haney says there are several types of magicians: those who specialize in close-up magic (like card tricks on a table), illusionists (think Siegfried and Roy or David Copperfield), mentalists (those who pretend to perform mind-reading), the "bizarre" (think sword swallowers), and children’s entertainers (balloon animals), among others. While some may do one or more types of magic, they generally stick to one category, and develop routines that play to their own strengths.

That's worth keeping in mind when you're hiring a magician. Although many magicians are happy to accommodate special requests, keep their specialty in mind—"someone who does close-up [magic] might hate animal tricks and wouldn’t do them within the scope of a close-up act. Each has its place," Haney says.

9. THEY'RE TIRED OF THE DORKY STEREOTYPES.

"The media gives magicians a bad name sometimes," Taylor says. "Think Howard Wolowitz on Big Bang Theory with his cheesy, annoying manner and performing at inappropriate times." Then there's the memorable Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, whose ineptitude as a magician is matched only by the obnoxiousness of his personality. Magicians like Taylor aim to change those unpleasant associations: "Many magicians, like myself, try to make the magic cool. Not over-the-top cool, but entertaining enough that you’ll talk about it in the pub that night and be impressed and not use 'geeky' to describe it."

10. THEY'VE HEARD ALL YOUR JOKES BEFORE.

Rich Bloch, a magician, inventor of magic effects, and owner of Dickens Parlour Theater in Millville, Delaware, says that when you think you’re being clever by asking the magician, “Can you make my husband disappear?” or “Can you saw my wife in half?” or “Can you change this dollar into a $1000?”—you aren’t. Also, the magician has probably heard the joke “How’s tricks?” before, even if they laugh with wide-eyed amazement like you’re the first person to ever crack it.

11. DON'T ASK THEM TO WORK FOR FREE …

Two magicians playing a trick with a bag of money
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Taylor’s pet peeve is someone asking, "Can you work for free?" or saying "I don't have much of a budget, but it will be great exposure for you."

"Unfortunately, exposure won't feed my family or pay my phone bill," he explains. "And I hate to say it, but 99.99 percent of these ‘exposure’ gigs don't lead to anything else. You wouldn't ask your electrician to work for free so why ask entertainers to?”

12. … OR TO EXPLAIN THE TRICKS.

As tempted as you may be to learn how a trick is done, don’t ask unless you’re paying for a private lesson. Once you learn, you’ll probably be disappointed, our sources say. “It’s usually something very simple,” Haney says. “It’s always more fun to be amazed.”

13. THERE ISN'T NECESSARILY A PENALTY FOR REVEALING HOW TRICKS ARE DONE.

While revealing a trick can lead to some ostracism for magicians, doing so won't get them sent to magicians' jail. For one thing, magic tricks aren't copyrightable, so it can be hard to prove ownership, and there's usually plenty of resources out there explaining tricks already. They have occasionally even been revealed in court—as when David Copperfield was forced to reveal the method behind his Lucky #13 trick after a participant claimed he'd dislocated his shoulder during a Las Vegas performance.

But there are certain centerpiece tricks—ones the magician created or purchased for thousands of dollars—that can ruin a magician's act if their mechanics are revealed. For example, Bloch has a trick where he copies someone’s signature while he’s blindfolded; it's a key part of his act, so revealing how it's done could be devastating. If a trick like that is unmasked, a magician might sue, as when Teller of Penn & Teller filed a lawsuit against a Belgian entertainer who posted a YouTube video of an illusion similar to one of Teller's signature tricks, and promised to reveal the secret behind it for $3050. Even though magic tricks aren't specifically copyrightable, Teller won his lawsuit because he'd registered his trick as a "dramatic work," which is protected by copyright.

14. THEY AVOID USING TRICK DECKS.

A white-gloved magician holding playing cards on a red background
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Although there are numerous trick card decks out there, Haney and Bloch both say a good magician needs only a standard Bicycle deck. “If you have a funny back, if people don’t recognize it, they automatically suspect it’s a trick deck,” Haney says.

15. THEIR TRICKS DON'T ALWAYS GO AS PLANNED.

Magicians sometimes perform in unusual environments—outdoors, at birthday parties, etc. Taylor remembers the time he was performing in a church hall for a corporate event and fell victim to its old wooden floor, which was riddled with gaps between the boards. "I was doing an escape from a replica set of Victorian prisoner chains and it's supposed to take 20 seconds in total," he says. But just as he went to flee, he realized he couldn't move his legs. "Turns out the chain had got trapped in the floor, meaning I couldn't get my feet out of the set of chains. I was stuck to the floor and could hear the music ticking away. Panicking, I grabbed hold of the cloth [that was supposed to drop and reveal him] and covered my feet with it as I yanked at the floorboards. I spent about 30 seconds of hell trying to subtly escape from the chains while talking to the audience as cool as I could. With a large yank, I managed to get my feet free, injuring an ankle in the process, and hobbled off stage as soon as I could."

Occasionally, even the little "disasters" turn out OK. Follis says he was once working a restaurant when a couple's dollar bill, which was part of his trick, got "a little too close the flame and burned—only a little, but clearly visible." In a panic, he tried to replace the dollar, but the couple "insisted on keeping it as it was their first date and they thought it would make a great story." The next Halloween, the same couple came to his show, sat in the second row, and told him how much they enjoyed the performance—followed soon after by an invitation to perform for their first family Christmas as a couple.

16. MISDIRECTION IS KEY.

“The essence of a magic performance is misdirection," Bloch says. "Not as in causing someone to look here rather than there, but displacing their expectations." He compares magic to humor, which often seems funny because of the unexpected turns a joke or a skit takes. "The unexpected is what causes the laughter reaction," Bloch explains. "Magic is the same. People expect an assistant to remain stable on the table, yet she floats, so you are changing the direction of their expectations.”

17. MAGIC TRICKS CAN HELP PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN INJURED OR WHO HAVE DISABILITIES.

Over the years, magicians have realized that learning to do tricks can be a valuable form of physical therapy. Haney says a customer bought a trick for his wife who had suffered a stroke; her doctor had said she’d never use her right hand again, but the trick gave her a goal to focus on, and she ended up regaining the use of her hand.

Several magicians have created programs that combine magic with other forms of physical and psychological therapy: David Copperfield founded Project Magic in 1981 to teach people with disabilities how to do sleight of hand work as a means to improve their dexterity, problem-solving skills, and self-confidence. After being in a debilitating car accident in 1988, magician Kevin Spencer created a “Healing of Magic” program that uses simple magic tricks to boost physical skills and motivational levels. According to his website, the concepts of “magic therapy” are now being used in more than 2000 hospitals, schools, and rehabilitation facilities worldwide.

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