Robot learns magic tricks for Netflix show, but won’t endanger human jobs

MAGI grasped a silver cup between its two metal claws in one hand. With the other hand, the robot dropped a red, bubble gum-sized ball into the cup.

A graduate student sat in the background, his hand hovering over an emergency stop button.

After a couple of rigid waves over the cup for dramatic effect, MAGI turned the cup upside down to reveal red confetti, the ball nowhere in sight.

MAGI used to be the top half of an emergency responder robot that could open doors and turn levers in hazardous situations. Now, it sits in the corner of UCLA’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, wearing a red bow tie and performing beginner-level magic tricks.

MAGI, which stands for Magic, Arts and Gaming Initiative, is one of many robots, including the marimba-playing robot and dancing robot, attempting to enter the entertainment industry.

“There are jobs we generally thought were safe for humans, like creative jobs,” said Dennis Hong, the principle investigator of RoMeLa and an amateur magician. “Because of advancements in artificial intelligence, robots are going to start to take over jobs in those fields.”

But this robot still needs to master the mechanics of basic tricks before it threatens any magician jobs, said Matthew Williams, a graduate student in the lab.

“Robots are dumb while human motion is smart and there are a lot of complications that go into trying to create a human motion,” Williams said.

Researchers in the lab built MAGI in one week to perform in one episode of a Netflix show called “Magic for Humans,” which funded the project. During that week, graduate students spent more than 40 hours practicing the tricks and fixing pieces when they broke.

Sometimes an elbow motor would fail carrying heavy props. Sometimes an arm would shoot out unprompted, nearly hitting the graduate students. Once, the robot exhausted its engine grasping at nothing.

“We’re dealing with a robot that wants to potentially break itself to get what we want it to do,” Williams said.

The robot executed its tricks well for the Netflix taping but lost an arm after only a few performances.

ustin Quan, another graduate student in the lab, said he thinks the robot could perform more complex tricks if researchers had more time and newer equipment. He said it might even be able to create its own tricks using artificial intelligence.

Steve Spill, a performer and founder of the magic theater Magicopolis in Santa Monica, said he does not feel like his career is threatened by robots like MAGI, even if 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 it would have a part of them in it. That’s what art is,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the trick, it has nothing to do with the song, it’s about the performer.”

Hong said he thinks robots could eventually exceed magicians’ abilities in technically challenging tricks by adding features such as extra fingers and hidden pockets.

However, he said part of the appeal of magic is understanding basic human limitations and then watching the magician violate them in a trick.

“You assume ‘that’s a robot, it could have built things into it’,” Hong said. “That’s no fun because you start with the assumption that (the robot) has abilities better than the audience.”

Spill agreed, comparing it to magic on television.

“You can’t help but think maybe there’s trick photography or something happening out of the frame of the screen,” he said. “The same could be said about robots.”

Hong also said successful magicians have many intangible qualities robots will never be able to recreate.

“This gets 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 do not believe we’ll be able to build a robot with true emotion.”


Branson magician brings show to Pittsburg

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Reza Borchardt, like most professional illusionists, was seduced by magic at a very early age. After witnessing his first magic show at the age of 6, he was conducting his own shows less than a year later, wowing his fellow classmates.

“I was an entrepreneur from day one; it was in my blood,” he said, who performs under the professional name of Reza. “Because of that drive, I was always able to make it a profession in the sense that I never had to get a real job.”

“However, it took me over a decade of constant dedication before I started achieving any type of huge success, so it definitely wasn’t overnight.”

Though he performs 100 annual shows at The Starlite Theatre in Branson, he loves to take to the road when he can, performing roughly another 100 shows “in other parts of the world.” Reza will be performing two live shows, the first at 6 p.m. and the second at 8 p.m., on Saturday at Kansas Crossing Casino in Pittsburg. This will be his second show in Southeast Kansas; he previously performed at the Pittsburg State University’s Bicknell Center for the Arts.

He has purposely steered clear of cliched acts such as “rabbits inside hats,” as he calls it, which is symbolic of magic acts of yesteryear.

“I don’t spend a lot of time practicing, but I spend a ton of time creating, developing and designing,” Reza said. “My brain is wired to constantly take ideas from the world around us and apply it to new ideas for the show. I think that might be what allows me to connect to audiences. The magic revolves around objects that we can all relate to, like power tools and spray paint, rather than sparkly boxes that don’t exist in our day-to-day lives.”

Voted Branson’s “Magician of the Year” in 2016, he has appeared before millions on television, from MTV to the A&E channel. In 2017, he appeared on an episode of “Duck Dynasty.” Earlier this year, he appeared on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us.”

His show, “Edge of Illusion,” is a high-energy production that Reza designed to connect with the audience on a personal level.

“The live show incorporates a lot of different types of magic and allows me to change the set list on a nightly basis, both to keep it fresh for myself and for those that come back and see the show over and over,” he said. “One moment, it might feel like a high energy rock concert as I’m passing through the spinning blades of an industrial fan. The next moment, I might be in the middle of the audience doing magic with an Oreo cookie. I try to strike a balance between the tricks people expect to see and the totally unexpected.”


A Comedy Magic Show

Comedy and magic, magic and comedy. The two are made for one another. Tricks can be hilarious as well as awe-inspiring, and a few laughs can help a magician distract an audience, diverting their attention away from the trick.

David Eliot mixes magic and comedy with aplomb, joking with the audience while spinning out tricks: card tricks, sleight of hand, catching flying objects in ways that would seem impossible.

The Kingston, Ont., native (a fact that elicited a lot of laughs, “Always the appropriate reaction to Kingston) brings his street performance into a stage setting, allowing him to try out new tricks and a fun new setup. His opening trick (which I won’t spoil) was both hilarious and amazing. I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about the trick, wondering how exactly he did it.

It’s what makes the best magicians, tricks that seem impossible and keep you thinking, keep you running it through in your head.


Magician & Endurance Artist David Blaine Stuns In Breathtaking Show In Brooklyn

Magician David Blaine. Getty Images

When the star of a show calmly jokes that he might die on stage, the audience is likely to brush it off. But when the performer making the announcement has a history of holding his breath for 17 minutes, the proclamation might not be far off.  Such was the warning David Blaine, magician and illusionist extraordinaire, calmly told the sold-out crowd at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre last Thursday night. He then proceeded to hold his breath for 10 minutes while in a transparent tank underwater.

Many cheered as the clock ticked. Others looked on in horror and disbelief.

“Please nobody ever do any of the things that you’ve seen,” Blaine, 45, told the audience after coming out of the tank, shaking and covered in a towel. “You might just be holding your breath and you think you’re fighting to hold your breath and all of a sudden what happens is you black out, you go unconscious and then the next thing that happens is you inhale water into your lungs and you will die and drown,” he warned.

The show on Thursday was the first of two sold out performances in New York City, culminating the end of a Summer tour around the states.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, the Jewish magician made his first impression in 1997 with an ABC special on street magic. But his shot to fame came with his high profile endurance exhibitions such as his “Buried Alive” stunt where he was entombed in an underground plastic box underneath a 3-ton water-filled tank for seven days in the Upper West Side. In another one, Blaine encased himself in a block of ice in Times Square for nearly 64 hours. In a 2008 taping of the Oprah Winfrey show he broke the world record, holding his breath underwater for 17 minutes and four seconds.

Back at the Kings Theater here, Blaine shocked the gasping audience by stabbing his arm with an icepick, and not drawing any blood when the icepick was removed. He also swallowed an audience member’s wedding ring, retrieving it with the help of a hanger. More swallowing tricks included coughing up his pet frog from his stomach.

The tension was palpable, similar to that of a horror movie, when he had two volunteers place an icepick underneath one of three cups. After the cups were moved around, Blaine, who was blindfolded, magically slammed his hands down on the two cups without the icepick. Many turned away as he did the trick, unable to cope with the anxiety.

“I kind of wanted to give everything of myself to the show,” Blaine told the audience. “It was also a curiosity like could these things, [That are] done back to back night after night, all [be] combined into one evening.”

In another stunt he downed several huge pitchers of water, sipped some kerosene and was able to spit out much of the water to extinguish a prop of his logo that was on fire.

Throughout the show Blaine performed with supreme confidence and the nonchalance of someone tossing out bags of garbage. The fact that he never raised his voice made his performance all the more mesmerizing and other-worldly. He told the crowd that he eats no food on the days he performs.

After the show, fans were mystified.

“The amount of self-discipline this guy has is unbelievable,” Shlomo Golombeck of New Jersey told The Jewish Week.

Eli Garber, who came in from Monsey to attend the show, shook his head. “It was way better than I expected. It was unbelievable. He brought a frog out of his stomach and a ring. I don’t know what’s going on there. It’s crazy.”

On stage, Blaine referenced Harry Houdini and the other great magicians who inspired him.

Manhattan resident Jacob Gitzis, said he loved that Blaine is Jewish and he was happy he got a chance to see such a performer in the flesh.

“I think David Blaine does a great job of connecting with his audience and puts an emphasis on making his show feel authentic,” Gitzis said. “Overall, he’s a terrific showman and a legend of our time! One day the young ‘magicians’ in his audience that he addressed several times will be quoting his name on stage.”

Source –  Times of Israel