The Human Limit of Speed-Puzzling?

When you think about achieving the impossible, what comes to mind? For runners, there’s beating the 4-minute mile. For the 100-meter sprint, it’s topping 10 seconds.

What do you suppose the puzzle equivalent would be? Solving puzzle #1 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in under 2 minutes? We’ve seen Dan Feyer do that, and it was seriously impressive.

For Rubik’s Cube enthusiasts — especially the competitors known as speed-solvers or speed-cubers — that benchmark is a sub-3 second solve.

The current verified world record for speed-solving a Rubik’s Cube stands at 3.4 seconds, which shattered the previous record by almost a second.

(That record is for a single solve. Many Rubik’s Cube competitions involve an average time across five solved cubes, and the speed record for that hovers somewhere around 5 seconds.)

A lot goes into achieving a 3.4 second solve. There are specially designed cubes that allow for easier, quicker, smoother twisting and turning, so you can solve faster. I’m sure anyone who has solved a classic Rubik’s Cube found it at least a little bit clunky.

There’s also technique. Top solvers not only memorize solving patterns known as algorithms, but they have preferred combinations of moves.

It has been mathematically proven that no matter how complicated a scramble gets, you’re never more than 20 moves away from the solve. Now, of course a computer can analyze a cube and figure out those 20 moves. The human mind doesn’t work that way, so even top speed-solvers would require many more moves to solve the cube, even if they’re still lightning fast.

Which brings us to the next aspect of speed-solving: efficiency. Sometimes the fewest number of moves isn’t the fastest solve. For instance, if you have to rotate the cube in order to execute a turn, you’re wasting time you could otherwise spend twisting and turning toward the solution. So some solvers will avoid a slower rotational move by doing two turns instead, which ends up being faster overall. The trade-off of speed vs. efficiency is another way speed-solvers are whittling down time and approaching that 3-second threshold.

Top solvers can execute ten turns or moves per second. Based on the idea that no Rubik’s Cube is more than 20 moves away from being solved, that mathematically implies that a 2-second solve should be possible, if not probable.

In fairness, we’ve seen a solve take less than a second, but that involved a computer program and a robot solver.

So where do we currently stand? Well, there’s the 3.4 second official record, but former champion Feliks Zemdegs claims that, in training, he has achieved a 3.01 second solve.

Another speed-solver, Patrick Ponce, claims that he has solved a 3×3 cube in 2.99 seconds, but again, this is an unofficial time.

That being said, it certainly seems like the 3-second threshold, like the 4-minute mile before it, will eventually fall.

How fast is the human limit? Only time will tell.

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