California (DM): David Blaine and Dynamo are considered among the world’s best magicians, but they may soon have competition from machines. Researchers have taught a computer to create its own magic tricks, including a mind-reading card illusion.  And what the computer lacks in creativity, it makes up for in logic, because the tricks were created from maths rather than theatrics, using artificial intelligence in this way for the first time.

Researchers at Queen Mary University London gave a computer program guidelines on how a magic jigsaw puzzle, and a mind-reading card trick work, as well the results of experiments into how humans understand magic tricks. From this, the intelligent system created new versions of the tricks, which could be performed by a magician. Co-creator of the project, Howard Williams said: ‘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.’ Human magicians rarely give up the secrets to their illusions, but details of the computer’s tricks were published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The puzzle the AI created is now on sale in a London magic shop, while the card trick is available as an Android app called Phoney.  The magic jigsaw trick involves assembling a jigsaw to show a series shapes, then taking it apart and reassembling it so that certain shapes have disappeared using a geometric principle. To create a trick like this, the computer had to consider several factors simultaneously, such as the size of the puzzle, the number of pieces involved, the number of shapes that appear and disappear and the ways that the puzzle can be arranged. ‘Something this complex is ideal for an algorithm to process, and make decisions about which flexible factors are most important,’ the researchers added. A second ‘mind-reading’ trick created by the machine involves arranging a deck of playing cards in a specific way around a smartphone with one person asked to pick out a card. The phone, running an Android app created for the trick, can reveal the chosen card on its screen. It works because the algorithm arranges the decks in such a way that a specific card can be identified with the least amount of information possible. The program identifies arrangements for the deck that, on average, required one fewer question to be asked before the card was found than with the traditional method.  And it means that the person performing the trick doesn’t have to remember the order of the cards.