How Does Akinator Work? Behind The Genie That 'Reads Your Mind'

Akinator
Akinator is an online genie program that asks you 20 questions and guesses which character you have in mind. Akinator.com

In case you haven't heard of it, Akinator, the Web Genie, is the name of an online game that has gone viral on social media in recent days.

Simply go to Akinator.com, enter a nickname for yourself, your age and gender, and think of a prominent person, celebrity, or even fictional character, and Akinator will ask you up to 20 questions, after which "he" will nearly always guess the exact person you have in mind.

And he seems to be extremely accurate, as it guessed everyone from Julian Casablancas (lead singer of the Strokes) to Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin's character in "Home Alone") right on the first time when we tried it out earlier today. And its records show that it's guessed everyone from Jesus Christ to Dora the Explorer correct in recent days.

It's quite the impressive online time-killer, but the first question people ask when they first encounter Akinator is how does it work? How is it possible that a program can guess seemingly any person accurately by simply asking up to 20 basic questions (and often far less)?

As for how the program works, according to the site's Frequently Asked Questions section, "Akinator uses the program Limule published by Elokence.com. The algorithm we use is an original creation. How we created it is our little secret."

There doesn't appear to be much more information available about just how the program uses Limule to make the program work so effectively.

But there are some other clues about how Akinator works. In the rare instances when the program doesn't know who you're thinking of after a lengthy series of further questions, it asks you to upload your character's photo and name in order to add it to its extensive database. This provides more insight into the way Akinator works, suggesting that it has compiled an ever-evolving, massive log of characters that people have wanted it to guess, along with the answers they used to describe the characters before uploading them.

That way, the next time someone is thinking of the obscure 1970s French film director you used to stump the game, it will likely be able to get the answer right. In that sense, Akinator is a novel way of using Artificial Intelligence and a secret program combined with the wonders of crowd-sourcing to create a fun and shockingly accurate game. For a more in-depth explanation of how the game might work, check out this complicated Wired magazine article in which the author states his hypothesis about the program that drives Akinator.

And this Quora explainer seeks to make it a little (but not much) easier for the layman to understand. Here's a snippet: "Roughly speaking, you can think of the Akinator, or any other game of 20 questions, as a form of binary search. (Or as constructing a decision tree.) In the ideal case, you'd always be able to rule out half the remaining answers with every question, and you'd be able to narrow it down to one from around 2^20 = 1,048,576 possibilities in 20 questions. The specific algorithm the Akinator uses to decide between questions could probably be one of a number of things, but in any case the goal is definitely to divide the set of possibilities as close to in half as possible with each question."

The website -- and later, smartphone mobile app -- was registered by France developers, according to the Whois web domain registry site. And Google Trends indicates that the European version of the website first went live in late 2007, though it took a couple of years for it to spread to other markets including the United States. Though it's been around for years, it appears to have undergone a boost in popularity in recent days, as Twitter and Facebook users have shared it thousands of times as a whole new group of players have found out about its "magic powers."

For instance, Twitter user @michaelmarshjr said, "Another thing that will distract me from finals, Akinator the genie. Sorry I'm late on this one, but it amazes me that it got Sean McGrew!"

Or as tweeter @gracewakelinxo so succinctly put it, "akinator some freaky shiz." We agree.

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