MAGI grasps a silver cup between its two metal claws in one hand. With the other hand, the robot dropped a red ball the size of chewing gum into the cup.
A graduate student sat in the background, his hand hovering over an emergency stop button.
After a few stiff waves on the mug for dramatic effect, MAGI turned the mug upside down to reveal red confetti, the ball nowhere in sight.
MAGI was once the top half of an emergency response robot that could open doors and operate levers in dangerous situations. Now he’s in the corner of UCLA’s Robotics and Mechanics Lab, wearing a red bow tie and performing beginner-level magic tricks.
“There are jobs that we generally thought were safe for humans, like creative jobs,” said Dennis Hong, RoMeLa’s lead investigator and an amateur magician. “Due to advances in artificial intelligence, robots will start to take over in these areas. “
But this robot has yet to master basic trick mechanics before it threatens magician jobs, said Matthew Williams, a graduate student at the lab.
“Robots are dumb whereas human movement is smart and there are a lot of complications in trying to create human movement,” Williams said.
Researchers at the lab built MAGI in a week to star in an episode of a Netflix show called “Magic for Humans,” which funded the project. During that week, the graduate students spent over 40 hours practicing the tricks and fixing the parts when they broke.
Sometimes a cranked motor would fail while carrying heavy accessories. Sometimes an arm would shoot out uninvited, almost touching the graduate students. Once, the robot ran out of its motor without grabbing anything.
“We’re dealing with a robot that potentially wants to break down to get what we want it to do,” Williams said.
The robot performed well for the Netflix recording but lost an arm after just a few performances.
Justin Quan, another graduate student at the lab, said he believed the robot could perform more complex tricks if researchers had more time and newer equipment. He said he might even be able to create his own tricks using artificial intelligence.
Steve Spill, performer and founder of the Magicopolis Magic Theater in Santa Monica, said he doesn’t feel his career is threatened by robots like MAGI, even though they are able to create their own magic tricks. .
“If you gave ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ to Bob Dylan or Taylor Swift they would all sing the song and there would be a part of them in it. That’s what art is, ”he said. “It has nothing to do with the thing, it has nothing to do with the song, it’s about the performer.”
Hong said he believes robots could eventually exceed magicians’ abilities in technically difficult tricks by adding features like extra fingers and hidden pockets.
However, he said part of the allure of magic is understanding basic human limitations and then watching the magician violate them in a trick.
“You’re assuming ‘it’s a robot, it could have put things in it,’” Hong said. “It’s not fun because you are assuming that (the robot) has better abilities than the audience.”
Spill agreed, comparing it to magic on television.
“You can’t help but think that maybe there is a faked photograph or something going on outside of the frame of the screen,” he said. “The same could be said of robots. “
Hong also said that successful magicians have many intangible qualities that robots will never be able to recreate.
“It falls into the realm of what artificial intelligence can and cannot do,” Hong said. “We have the technology to build robots that look and feel like they have emotions, but I don’t think we’ll be able to build a robot with real emotion. “