I’m not sure how often you encounter magic in Shoreditch. Real magic. Makes your heart beat faster and your brain expand magic. But last Saturday I did. Or at least, I think I did.
I was at FutureFest, in a seminar about thought identity technology, listening to ‘research magician’ Stuart Nolan talk about how the micro movements we all make mean he can design a technology that reads minds.
Mind reading? I’ve always been sceptical. Surely it’s just a scam with a guy at the back holding up cards or pressing buttons to make gullible audiences believe? Maybe. But on that afternoon in Shoreditch, for a few hours at least, my inner cynic disappeared. Why? Because Stuart Nolan’s approach seemed to me to be the best kind of magic. Magic with logic, explanation and fact thrown in. The magic of science.
As a two day conference about the shape of things to come, FutureFest was the perfect place for Stuart to talk about the future of mind reading technology and how – within a few short years – it could become commonplace in our tech landscape. He started his seminar by explaining that he originally intended to come and talk about how in the future, ‘ideo motor responses’ would be read by machines that could then tell the world what a person was thinking, based on the tiny micro movements in their face, or hands, or even eyes.
That was his plan he said. To talk about a technology that might yet come to be. But then, apparently, he made it.
Working as a research magician at Pervasive Media, Stuart explained that in thinking about the possibilities of this technology he ended up actually creating a crude device that could do exactly what he had been theorising about. Named an ‘ideobird’, Stuart’s device can read its operator’s micro movements and also read how that operator interprets other peoples’ micro movements to work out what’s happening around them.
Stuart’s seminar was a delicate balance between science and showmanship. He got us all on board with a pendulum swinging exercise to demonstrate how everyone gives themselves away with micro movements, all the time. He bolstered his argument by correctly guessing the right words from four books he asked people to choose from at random (although I was unconvinced as to how random choosing ‘Wendy’ from Peter Pan could actually be). He sealed the deal with a key and lock demonstration that had people picking the right key from a pile to unlock a padlock using just the movement of their bodies as a guide.
It was hard to ignore the ‘evidence’. Everyone was in.
So once the ground had been watered, he planted the ideobird seed. A little black box with a tiny wooden bird on top, he gave this detector to a receptive audience member and asked her to read minds.
I won’t tell you how it worked. I’m not sure I could. But she did read minds. Or at least she seemed to. She found a randomly hidden piece of paper by following the path the ideobird told her to, looking at peoples faces and cutting a course through the audience, based on the movements we gave away. Or something like that.
I applauded when she found the paper. I smiled as I left the theatre. I even found myself talking and thinking about it through the other interesting lectures and seminars at the rest of FutureFest.
But now, in retrospect, I can’t help feeling that perhaps I was part of the show. My willingness to believe and my leap from total cynicism to open acceptance of a technology that could read minds; could that have been what Stuart Nolan was trying to prove about the future? How susceptible we’ve all become at the hands of experts and technology?
Was there any truth in it at all, or was there just a really convincing performer on stage, and a man at the back, pushing buttons?
I know what I want to believe.
Watch Stuart at TEDx Salford in 2012 and decide for yourself…