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You can try out this AI-created magic card trick at home

card trick
Dmytro Surkov/123RF
Writer Arthur C. Clarke famously said that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With one of their latest research projects, researchers from Queen Mary University of London are carrying out a variation on this idea — by using technology (and, more specifically, artificial intelligence) to create a “mind-reading” card trick.

The trick involves a magician with two decks of cards. These get shuffled, and then the subject is asked to pick a total of eight, including both words and image cards. They must then choose a word and an image, without showing it to the magician. The magic bit? That the magician has already written down the pairing the person has chosen. It seems like spooky stuff, although its creator points out it is basic psychology.

“The AI system [that created the cards looked] for words and pictures that are closest in some type of meaning, a measure called semantic similarity,” Peter McOwan, professor of computer science, told Digital Trends. “The algorithm finds sets of themed target words and pictures that match — such as ‘hunger’ — and other sets of words and picture that don’t match as well, such as ‘fashion.’ We then produce printed cards with these sets of similar and different word and pictures, and use a bit of clever maths in the card shuffle and dealing that means each pile of cards dealt has only one target word or target picture in it. When a spectator picks a word packet and a picture packet, it’s most natural to make the word and picture association we want them to, so our prediction proves correct.”

It’s neat because — at its root — it is a classic trick. There is no EEG brainwave reading, or fancy levitation. Instead, it is using pattern recognition and internet searches to discover how the  mind subconsciously matches words and pictures. It is based on an idea that a  magician could probably do but computers and big data make significantly easier. The researchers successfully tested the finished magic trick on attendees at science fairs — and used this to verify that it worked correctly.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal PLOS One. If you want to have a go for yourself, you can also download the assets here.

“It’s a new area of study, which is always exciting to start to explore,” McOwan said. “Magic has been a hobby for years, but it’s also an interesting way to explore areas like machine creativity and human perception and cognition.”

Next up, he wants to use AI to come up with magic tricks from scratch. Just so long as they do not all involve sawing us pesky humans in half, we’re happy!

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