Dennis Hong, UCLA professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of RoMeLa, which stands for Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, and one of his robots, were recently featured on the new Netflix series, “Magic for Humans” developed by TV host and magician Justin Willman.
In the “Terrifying Tech” episode, RoMeLa’s robot, named MAGI (Magic, Arts and Gaming Initiative), squares off with Willman in an epic magic duel.
Hong recently shared a glimpse of what went into the episode and how he got into magic.
What do you like about magic?
Magic is such a great hobby. You can practice and have fun even when you are alone. I often practice my magic tricks at airports while waiting for flights! You can be creative and come up with new tricks. When you perform in front of your friends and see their faces light up with amazement that is such a great feeling.
What was it like to see MAGI performing on screen?
Robots still have a long way to go before they are used in an unstructured environment in the real world. We are constantly researching and developing robotics technology to make this happen. Thus for the show, we really did not know what to expect as there was no script and was filmed live without repeats. We prepared a number of tricks for the show and luckily most of them worked — just like magic!
“Magic for Humans” is turning out to be a hit. You were approached to participate since you are passionate about robots. How did you get started in the field, and are there other passions you enjoy?
After watching “Star Wars” when I was 7, I knew I wanted to build robots for a living. I realized that dream by becoming a professor and director of RoMeLa. Interestingly enough, I also have a keen interest in magic. As a student, I won first place in a national magic competition in Korea and often give special lectures on the science and psychology of magic. So when Justin’s team contacted us for this episode I did not hesitate to say yes. MAGI was developed in just a few weeks at RoMeLa.
I am also an aspiring chef and take great pleasure in cooking almost every day at home. As a matter of fact, I had the opportunity to combine my passion for cooking and robotics as a participant on MasterChef USA. My students and I built a robot sous chef named CARL, which stood for Culinary Assistant Robotic Limb, for the episode.
Is the technology behind MAGI and CARL similar?
MAGI was based on CARL, and our aim with both is to show that robotics can also be entertaining and there’s nothing to fear about this technology. In both instances, our team had a lot of fun.
RoMeLa also works on robots for disaster relief, to fight fires, and to de-mine. Our team continually aspires to make a positive impact and improve the world.
With CARL, we wanted to show how in the future robots can help the elderly and physically challenged in their daily lives. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, most of the scenes with CARL were cut. On the show CARL organized ramekins for dessert, cut carrots, measured and handed me cups of rice, and even threw me a lemon to slice.
In his infamous style, judge Gordon Ramsay shouted, “Dennis! You are brilliant! You are a genius!” However, at the end, chef Ramsay gave a thumbs down to my cooking but a thumbs up for CARL, so I was somewhat happy.
As a roboticist, magician and chef do you think these fields have anything in common?
Yes, indeed! All three make people happy and I am happiest when I have a hand in making others smile. As a roboticist, we try to develop technology to help people and make the world a better place. As a chef, I create meals and share the joy and happiness with family and friends. As a magician, I have fun entertaining others and igniting curiosity.
What’s your favorite magic trick?
I started with stage magic and then moved on to close up magic, but my favorite magic trick is to train students as future leaders in their fields to make this world a better place.