Cassandra: The Ghost in the Machine

Arts & Culture
re:publica 2017

Short thesis: 

This talk investigates the nature of human beliefs through the creation of an autonomous fortune telling machine. Our aim was to conjure up the sense of magic and mystery experienced during a real “live” fortune telling experience. There was however an unexpected and intriguing outcome of our study - we encountered various inexplicable phenomena that led us to believe in the existence of a consciousness within the machine. Something unusual was taking place, but were these phenomena purely coincidences, the result of human psychological factors, or were supernatural forces at play?


The focus of this talk is an experiment to investigate the nature of human beliefs. To achieve this, we built an interactive, autonomous fortune telling machine, with a unique character and personality of her own. Part physical, part digital, our device makes use of traditional cold-reading techniques used by real-world “Psychics”. Our aim was to create an artifact that would conjure up the same sense of magic and mystery experienced during real “live” fortune telling.

Far from being an innate ability or "gift", fortune telling can be achieved through a structured, repeatable process that may be studied and learnt. By explicitly recording these processes as an algorithm we can document, deconstruct and ultimately demystify them.

The success of fortune telling is dependent on ensuring that the information delivered is pertinent to a subject's personal life story. To demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach, we collected feedback from subjects through stories and recorded audio clips. The outcome was on the whole successful, with engaging and effective experiences being achieved and subjects acknowledging the accuracy and relevance of the predictions given.

There was however a much more intriguing, unanticipated outcome of our study. We (who built the machine and who understood its functionality) observed behaviors that seemed beyond her capability. Over the course of our experiments, we developed a collective belief that the machine exhibited behavior that somehow transcended its functional design - she had become more than the sum of her parts. Such inexplicable and unnerving phenomena might lead one to believe in the existence of some kind of consciousness within the machine.

Clearly something unusual was taking place, but were these pure coincidences, the result of human psychological factors, or were supernatural forces at play? Did we fall for the tricks and techniques of the machine, just as our subjects had done? Have we mythologised her actions and read mysticism into phenomenon with completely rational explanations? Were we successful in creating an apparently magical entity, only to be become bewitched by her charms?

The aim of this talk is to present the evidence collected during the study and to stimulate debate in the hope of reaching some conclusions on the above questions.

Stage L2
Monday, May 8, 2017 - 17:45 to 18:15