What magic tricks should teach us about the technology of tomorrow


Do you believe in magic? Whether or not you do it in the abstract is actually less important than you think, because your senses have already decided that they are believers.

Dr Gustav Kuhn, psychology reader at Goldsmiths and author of Living the Impossible: The Science of Magic, has been practicing magic since childhood. Now he spends his days examining how tricks work, and what’s alarming is that often wizards’ best hunches are only half correct or even completely wrong. “Although magicians are very good at performing the trick and knowing which tricks work, their explanation of why they work is not necessarily correct,” he told TechRadar following his performance. / lecture in front of an audience of skeptics at New Scientist Live.

“With magic there are enormous distortions of perceptual memory or reasoning and they can give us some really interesting information about how the human mind works.” In summary, your perceptions are inherently wrong, with your brain providing helpful shortcuts that usually help you function… unless someone is deliberately trying to cheat you, that is.

Control attention

At one point in his speech, Kuhn bounces a ball twice before pretending to bounce it a third time. It’s not exactly David Copperfield, but he does the job as a demonstration. “About two-thirds of people feel a bullet that goes up and then goes away,” he says. “You see something that clearly didn’t happen.”

In short, it takes about a tenth of a second for the eye stimulus to reach the brain, and that’s too long if you’re in danger. As a result, the visual system mimics what you would expect to see – hence, some people actually see the ball fly through the air and disappear.

Another example: by simply adding a flicker to two images, Kuhn is able to make the majority of the audience not notice a fairly obvious difference between two images. Remove the flicker, and it’s obvious to everyone – that’s probably why you should never play these Spot the Difference pub quiz games.

“People are oblivious to most of the things that are going on in their environment,” says Kuhn. “And so once you actually have control of their attention, you have pretty much total control over what they see and what they miss.”

Case in point, this attention study from 1999. This is just a short video: follow the instructions and see how you do.

Tests like this and the use of eye tracking software tell us something important. “What you see is not necessarily related to where you look, but where you witness with your mind,” says Kuhn. “Even in magical literature, magicians pretty much assume that attention and eye movements are very, very closely related.” Recent research suggests that this is simply not the case.

The lessons of technology

These elements are usually not taken into account when it comes to technology. We now know, for example, that talking on the phone – even with a hands-free kit – is just as dangerous as drinking and driving, yet one is legal while the other is not (it doesn’t. is not reproduced when talking to passengers, by the way, as passengers can see where the driver is, and generally have the common sense to be silent during times when maximum concentration is required.)

Likewise, there is another technology that should never have left the design table: Google Glass. “Is it a good idea to develop human interfaces that allow you to present information on glasses while you interact with the world?” He asks during the conversation.

“No, it really isn’t. It might seem logical because people can keep an eye on the task, but it will distract them and they just won’t be able to see it. More importantly, they are not aware that they will not be able to see it.

It was for this reason that Kuhn jumped at the opportunity to give his speech – very similar to the one we heard on New Scientist Live – to a group of Google employees. You can watch the whole thing below if you want – we still can’t find out what’s going on at 3:52 a.m., despite watching it a few times.

“I was interested because Google Glass has been a bit of a scarecrow for me, because it’s such a bad idea,” Kuhn recalls. “It’s so terrible, it’s really terrifying and I really wanted to go and give a talk to Google to point out some of these limitations.” It turns out that they were “as oblivious to these limitations as the general public.”

This is also not a review of Google: it’s everyone. Kuhn tells us how eye trackers were used in the 1990s to measure jerky eye movements, and how people simply missed out on obvious things even when looking directly at them. “You could make these really huge changes to a scene and people just wouldn’t notice them,” he says. But because it was in the ’90s and eye trackers were expensive, people just wouldn’t believe the results when presented at vision conferences.

“The fact that even visual scientists didn’t believe you would miss out on these kinds of changes illustrates how many of these findings are counterintuitive,” says Kuhn. “I wouldn’t expect someone working at Google or a tech company to know about this unless you’ve experienced it, because it’s very, very counterintuitive.”

Google Glass may be dead and buried, but Heads Up Display technology endures, especially in car dashboards, and it’s as bad an idea as it was to the eyes. “If you’re developing new technology, people focus a lot on the actual code and the technology without really thinking about the user experience,” says Kuhn. “And to measure that, you really need psychologists.”

At this point, you might be getting flashbacks to an article we wrote last year that our minds weren’t evolved enough to deal with social media. We put this hypothesis to Kuhn, and his answer is quite unequivocal: “No, they are not. “

Magic for good

With this in mind, Kuhn created the MAGIC Lab at Goldsmiths to empirically delve deeper into how magical techniques can improve our lives. It might sound offhand (MAGIC is actually an acronym for Minds Attention and General Illusion Cognition) but there are actually very real reasons to be interested.

Right now, Kuhn and the MAGIC Lab are working on everything from apply a magic suggestion to game stories to evoke artificial intelligence which can deceive humans.

“In fact, we are training computer robots so that they can trick humans to see what impact this form of deception will have on people,” says Kuhn. “We’re testing some of these magic principles, but we’re also looking at how people react when computers suddenly start cheating because we have great faith in computers. “

The game’s narrative content is even more interesting and runs on a concept in the wizard’s sleeve called “forcing,” where you think you made a choice out of free will, but it was actually heavily influenced.

Imagine a situation where there are four cards on the table and you are asked to touch one – Kuhn tells us that 60% of people will choose card number three. “If you ask people what is the likelihood of other people choosing the same card as them, they say ‘well, probably around 30%,’ so they drastically underestimate the extent to which they are influenced by these biases. “

And what about dual screens? Back when Microsoft unveiled the dual-display Surface Duo, Panos Panay made much of the science behind dual displays, saying, “We absolutely know scientifically that you will be more productive on two displays – much more than a single screen could never do it… that seam in the middle lights up the mind in a way that’s almost impossible to explain because you have to feel it.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Microsoft Surface Duo (Image credit: Microsoft)

We put this quote to Kuhn who, it is fair to say, is not convinced. “I find that pretty hard to believe. The two-screen thing is actually very unproductive, ”he says. “When you disengage your attention and re-engage it, it takes a lot of cognitive resources. So the best thing you can do is really turn off all other devices, focus on one thing that’s finished, and then move on to the next. Any new tool that encourages this attentional switching … I don’t think that’s a good idea, personally.

But again, intuitively, you might think this is wrong. This is why magic is so useful as a test aid: not only does it make cognitive psychology more accessible, but it challenges our perceptions in every way. “The reason magic works is that these limitations are so surprising and often counterintuitive,” says Kuhn. “Even for me as an individual who works as a magician and scientist, I find it difficult to fully appreciate how wrong my intuitions about perception are.”

And what does the Magic Circle think of the outspoken way Kuhn explains why magic tricks work? “Yes, the Magic Circle is generally not very happy with some of the ways we discuss this,” he concedes. His claim, supported by an investigation recent exhibition at the Wellcome Collectionis that some understanding of the science behind the tricks improves people’s enjoyment.

It probably won’t work with the powers of the Magic Circle, but for Kuhn, bigger issues are involved. “A lot of my projects started with false assumptions,” he says. And if this is the case with a long-time magician, then what hope for people who accidentally meddle with forces beyond their comprehension?

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