Magicians, psychics and other sparkly frauds have been scamming the gullible and dim-witted for centuries using elaborate trickery to simulate fantastic powers. But now science is finally here, and it's going to follow through on all of their broken promises.
Here are the technologies that, if you could take them back in time, would totally let you cash in as a wizard.
In many ways, mind reading is a lot like the human digestive system: no matter what you put into it, ultimately all you're getting out is a bunch of shit. Psychics are mostly just using cold readings and leading questions to pick up clues. They see a guy in a red, white and blue cowboy hat and the "spirits" tell them that he likes country music. The guy is impressed, and hands them money to hear more.
"I'm sensing an object."
"It's not an object."
"Of course! I'm sensing something like an object, a... person!"
"My god! It is a person! My wife, Jenny!"
"Aha! Women are basically objects; you see how the reading was murky."
By creatively hedging their guesses and keeping all information vague, a good cold reader can emulate psychic abilities at least well enough to fool chumps, and chumps' money spends like anybody else's.
How it's Becoming Real:
Scientists at Berkeley University figured out that an MRI machine gives them a pretty clear picture of what the brain is doing. So, if they simply compare what the brain is doing when in different states of mind, you should eventually be able to come up with a machine that can see your thoughts. They already were able to make the machine "see" what word you were thinking of
We bet airport security would love to have one of these that you pass through, flashing your thoughts up on a screen for some bored TSA agent to chuckle at. We've got a feeling that in 20 years there'll be a booming industry in telepathy-blocking skull implants.
Telekinesis is the ability to move or interact with physical objects using only one's thoughts, and charlatans have been replicating it for centuries. Like say you want to bend a spoon with your mind. Simply misdirect the audience while you use your hands to bend the spoon in such a way that, when viewed from a top down angle, it still appears to be unbent. As you slowly adjust that viewing angle, the spoon appears to bend before the audience's very eyes! Hey! Look at you! You're better than Criss Angel!
Oh, not "better" in terms of magic tricks; he's got some pretty neat ones. You're just better than him in general. Because you're not Criss Angel. It's uh... it's not a hard thing to do.
LOOK AT HIM!
How it's Becoming Real:
About five years ago, a group of scientists successfully decoded the brain signals human beings use to control their hands. Because said scientists were both astoundingly awesome and amazingly irresponsible, they then used this discovery to implant microchips in the brains of monkeys which allowed them to move computer cursors with their brain.
Guys, we need to sit you down and show you a little movie called The Lawnmower Man.
"I wish he'd stop clicking on 'kill me; I am a monster and should not be.' Why did we even put that option in there?"
Fast forward a few years and now we're starting to see the first wave of products resulting from that experiment. Behold the BrainGate, and despair!
From the company Cyberkinetics--which totally does NOT sound like a villainous organization dedicated to mass producing psychic robots--the BrainGate is a chip implanted in your motor cortex that monitors your brain activity and converts it into computer commands used to operate machinery. It was originally built for amputees and paraplegics, but the company has recently received a $4.25 million grant from the Department of Defense for their product.
It's not clear exactly what they're going to do with the technology, but odds are it's going to be less along the lines of "helping paraplegic monkeys to live better lives" than it will be "fusing human brains into unstoppable, unkillable robot bodies." Hello? RoboCop 2? Seriously, do you guys not have Cinemax?
"What does it want?!"
"Crack! It wants crack!"
"Why did we build a crackhead robot?!"
"I DON'T KNOW WE REALLY WENT DOWNHILL AFTER THE FIRST MOVIE."
Alchemy is the ancient, bullshit version of chemistry. When most people hear the word they immediately think of the alchemists who claimed they could turn lead into gold (a practice called Chrysopoeia, which is not to be confused with Chrysopelea, which is a flying snake. Seriously, don't confuse them. Your experiments will get terrifying in a hurry.)
"Now marvel, as I transmutate lead into gol-AHHH SNAAAAKES!!!"
--Mernil the Dyslexic Wizard
Of course, the closest old-timey alchemists ever really got was mixing sulfur and gold powder into a metal to turn it yellow. That's right: All it took to create "gold" from lead was to put some gold in it! Good god, it was staring us in the face the entire time!
How it's Becoming Real:
Science has made monumental leaps since that era when alchemy was considered the second-most promising method of obtaining gold after "capturing a leprechaun." We now know that gold is an element that simply has three fewer protons than lead. If you could somehow change that using SCIENCE...
Oh, actually we're kind of late on this one. Back in 1980, a scientist named Glenn Seaborg accidentally made gold out of bismuth, using the aforementioned proton-plucking method (OK, it was a bit more complicated than that).
Yes, bismuth, the same stuff that's in Pepto Bismol.
Or "Pink Bismuth" if you can only afford the generic.
It was only a few thousand atoms' worth, and the cost of doing it was way more than the resulting gold would be worth. But still. He made gold.
Seaborg, seen here without gold. There are, like, 200 friggin' pictures of the guy, and not one of them has gold in it. Awesome work, Google.
And mankind is really just getting started with the whole "change elements by farting around with their protons" business. Transmutation of elements is one of the things they're always doing at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. Though they're talking less about turning lead into gold and more about turning radioactive waste into something that won't poison our great great grandchildren.
But hey, thanks to Cracked, Google search and poor reading comprehension, we're laying odds that at least one Internet-frequenter will be microwaving some Pepto tonight, and keeping that old dipshit alchemist spirit alive!
Chiromancy, or "palm reading" is the supposed ability to discern a person's dominant personality traits or even divine their future by interpreting the lines on their palm. It's basically just a hand-fetish version of the cold reading we discussed earlier: close inspection of the hands can say a lot. The placement and amount of calluses, how well the nails are kept, indents from rings--they're all general clues to a person's life.
"Hm. You see here? The stickiness of the heart line indicates you're a bachelor."
How it's Becoming Real:
Your hand really is a gold-mine of information about your genetics and overall health. We have previously explained how researchers have figured out that finger length can determine sexual behavior, a.k.a. the Digit Ratio Theory.
But your fingerprints also contain a load of information about certain genetic disorders. For example, if you have something called Ulnar Swirls (pictured below) it's likely you have Down's syndrome.
The same creases in the palms the fortune tellers claim to read are actually indicators of certain genetic disorders and even fetal alcohol syndrome.
Of course, old-fashioned palm readers have seized on this to claim they were right all along. See! If scientists can find genetic clues in your Life Line, surely our experts will be able to predict when you'll meet your soulmate! For a small fee!
This is the big one. Whether it's a lady with a crystal ball, a cult leader predicting apocalypse or Sylvia Freaking Browne, there has always been a thriving industry in making (often vague) predictions about the future. You can be wrong 99 times out of a hundred, but as long as you get one guess right (usually something like, "I predict a major disaster somewhere in Asia this year") your followers will forget all the misses.
"Holy Shit, it did rain at some point. Nostradamus was right!
Just ask Ms. Browne, who has turned a career of never successfully predicting anything into a business that charges $850 dollars for a telephone reading.
How it's Becoming Real:
It looks like the only thing between us and having the computer equivalent of a crystal ball is getting the software right--and trust us, they're working around the clock.
Two ongoing crises are driving the research right now: Global Warming, with the corresponding need to develop more accurate models to predict warming trends, and the recent financial collapse that managed to blindside every expert whose job it is to see shit like that coming. Strangely, in the future the same techniques may be used to predict both.
And it's Magic!
It's not easy; it takes a shitload of computing power, and massive amounts of past and current data for a piece of software to predict what's going to happen. But, for instance, one model already predicted a crash of the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The programmers aren't claiming magic, the software just recognized that buyers tend to behave a certain way before a steep drop.
Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Defense is using computer models right now to predict geopolitical outcomes, anticipating events like regime changes using number-crunching techniques probably not all that different from what statistician, Nate Silver, uses to nail down his creepily accurate election forecasts.
And if you can get rough-yet-fairly accurate predictions with just some dudes and their desktop PC's, you can only imagine what could happen if we had, say, a gigantic supercomputer on the task. Or instead of imagining it, we could just go to Los Alamos National Laboratories where they have this fucker:
That's the Roadrunner system, it operates at 1.6 PetaFLOPS (that is, one point six quadrillion or 1,600,000,000,000,000 calculations a second) and they're busily teaching it to predict things. They're running mathematical models that will let it map everything from the chaotic spread of a wildfire to the expansion of the universe.
Of course, even then, the models are simply predicting broad trends. They could maybe predict what the crime rate in Baltimore will be next year, but can't predict that the guy in the next cubicle over is about to stab some dudes. No, for that you'd need the FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technologies) program, a system developed by the Department of Homeland Security that can measure your vital signs and fleeting facial expressions and accurately predict that you're going to commit a crime in the near future.
All of which leaves us with one question: What happens when personal computers get powerful enough to run the prediction software on their own, and everyone has access to it? How will people's behavior change when they know what the computer is predicting they'll do? And how will the computers adjust their predictions based on the subjects of their predictions knowing the predictions? Or will it have predicted the subjects' awareness of the predictions as part of its original predictions?
Wait, this is why they started burning witches, isn't it?
You can read more of Wang's articles at Gunaxin.
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For things the technology (read: the Internet) has given hope to, check out 5 Ridiculous Ancient Beliefs (That Thrive on the Internet). Or find out about how the Internet is destroying you, in 6 New Personality Disorders Caused by the Internet.
And stop by our Top Picks to see Swaim microwaving gallons of Pepto Bismol.