Genie and the Lamp: 2015 Edition

My final project was a modern take on the Genie and the Lamp story, in which I free a super-intelligent AI from a locked Faraday Cage. Along the way, we have a conversation about the nature of magic and deception.

The role of the AI was played by a Google Nexus Q, a discontinued media streamer/Android device from 2012. The Q is small, black, spherical, and contains a programmable LED ring, all of which (combined with its obscurity/unfamiliarity) give it a very other-worldly, mystical feeling.

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Setup

The Q sat inside a hinged black cubical box, and was attached to the projector and speakers. The performance was scripted and directed by two complementary Android applications (source available here), one running on the Nexus Q, and one running on my phone. The phone served as a remote – the volume buttons advanced the script running on the Q from line to line. This let me talk for as long as I wanted during our conversation, and still have the AI enter at the perfect time.

I also made use of my NFC deck from my previous project. This was just placed on the table as well.

Technicals

The Nexus Q required a bit of hacking. I unlocked, rooted, and installed CyanogenMod 11 (based on Android 4.4), just to be able to run the app I developed. I used Google’s Text-To-Speech service (UK English) as the voice of the AI, and used a Parse app for communication between the remote and the Q. I had hoped to use Bluetooth for the remote, since I thought it would be faster and more reliable (especially inside the Media Lab), but the Parse app was simpler to set up and easier to use.

In the middle of the trick, the AI prints out the secret card in ASCII Art. I used this service to convert the a PNG of the card to ASCII art, 100 pixels wide. The “print” function was randomly timed to simulate the erratic output of terminals. Throughout the performance, the AI also printed small, easter-egg-style comments or status messages, for the alter audience members to appreciate.

Content

I tried to make the start a little bit of surprise. In the story, I just happen to come across the AI, so when starting the performance I pretended to have forgotten something in my seat and was on my way to retrieve it when the closed black box called out for help to me.

From there, I acted out the story of meeting the AI, learning about its past, and receiving an offer for it to grant me one wish, a custom it learned from the internet that it thought to be appropriate in this scenario. I wished to be a magician, and from there began a conversation about deception that became the theme and message of the story: that deception can be used to give people experiences that are valuable because of their impossibility.

Along the way, I performed a card trick involving my phone and a NFC-tagged deck, to demonstrate the philosophy that I was trying to explain to the AI.

Here’s a video of the full performance:

Review

I put considerably more effort into writing a narrative for this performance than for previous ones, and I feel like it made off in developing a more cohesive trick that both entertained and has a takeaway message. There were a few points that I wish I could have refined, and a few extra polishes I wish I could have added, like the box closing itself at the end or a more elaborate card trick in the middle, but I was satisfied with where I had gotten the production as it was.

I had a blast this semester, and will definitely be recommending it to friends interested in magic. Thanks for running a fabulous class!