Give This Rubik-Solving Robot a Hand (Or at Least a Few Fingers)!

Wait a minute, didn’t you write about robots and Rubik’s Cubes just last week?

Yes, gentle reader, I certainly did.

But, as it turns out, that iconic little puzzly cube and all its twisty brethren are incredibly useful to AI and robot designers.

Not only do the acts of pattern recognition, visual assessment, and solving provide ample challenges to programmers — both in terms of speed and efficiency — but the physical manipulation of the cube itself is a frequent subject of testing.

In this particular case, a robot has been developed which can solve the cube one-handed. And, as eloquently stated in this Gizmodo article, that’s a feat in itself:

At one point in time, it was considered an accomplishment when a robot arm could pick up something as delicate as an egg without crushing it between a pair of pincers. But as researchers from the University of Tokyo’s Ishikawa Senoo Lab demonstrate — with the assistance of a high-speed camera monitoring the subtle movements — this agile three-fingered hand can manipulate and reposition Rubik’s fiendish puzzle cube with impressive dexterity.

Check it out:

This is a very different mechanical rig when compared to some of the other speed-solving rigs we’ve seen before. Instead of an elaborate array of motors and manipulators, it’s simply a few limber fingers.

This level of dexterity could prove to have all sorts of applications, from robotic surgery and meal preparation to improving bomb-defusing equipment and hazardous material disposal.

And all thanks to this twisty little puzzle. That’s pretty cool.


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This Puzzle Solves Itself!

The slow, steady march of technological advancement in all fields continues to progress, and the world of puzzles is no exception. In previous blog posts, we’ve discussed not only technological leaps forward in making puzzles (like 3-D printers), but also new developments in solving puzzles.

We’ve joked that robots are coming for our puzzles, thanks to advanced machines and AI programs that can play games like chess, Go, and Scrabble on par with — and sometimes, far better than — human experts.

It’s the same with Rubik’s Cubes and other twisty puzzles. Even though speed solvers continue to break new ground in terms of sheer speed and efficiency, we can’t compete with robots that solve cubes in the blink of an eye.

And now, it seems we’ve reached the natural end of this journey…

A self-solving Rubik’s Cube.

Check it out:

The creation of a Japanese technician and self-styled “hardware hacker,” this Rubik’s Cube is the same size as the traditional cube, but the similarities end there.

Instead of the traditional plastic network of connections that allows you to twist and turn the cube every which way, this cube is packed to the gills with electronics, wiring, a series of motors, and the interconnected pieces that give the Rubik’s Cube its signature movement and flexibility.

A marvel of miniaturization and design, this self-solving Rubik’s Cube clearly has its own built-in solving algorithm. It doesn’t simply memorize the twists employed to scramble the cube and then reverse them; the solution and scrambling are completely different chains of events.

All in all, it’s a thoroughly impressive creation. Of course, if I’d known there were going to be self-solving Rubik’s Cubes, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time trying to solve one myself!


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It’s Puzzle Magic!

[Crossword constructor and magician David Kwong wows an audience.]

There is a certain sense of wonder that accompanies a well-constructed puzzle. The skill and artistry it takes to craft a quality crossword or brain teaser, weaving together words and leaving a finished puzzle in your wake, rather than a bundle of crosswordese and obscurities is truly something remarkable.

But that’s not the sort of puzzle magic we’re discussing today. No, instead, we’re returning to the CW summer series Penn and Teller: Fool Us to observe the magic of another puzzly entertainer at work.

For the uninitiated, Fool Us is a show where magicians and performers from all around the world present their best tricks, illusions, and bits of magical wizardry to try and stump the famous duo.

And on a recent episode, magician John Michael Hinton performed two acts of magical trickery involving a Rubik’s Cube.

Check out this video where he dazzles Penn and Teller:

That final reveal was a thing of beauty!

You can check out more of John Michael Hinton’s magic on his YouTube page! And let me know if you’ve seen any other acts of puzzle magic! I’d love to check them out!


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The Tetris Effect: Unleashed!

When alarmists talk about the negative effects of video games on players, they’re usually referring to first-person shooters, like Call of Duty, or games that encourage immoral acts, like Grand Theft Auto.

They’re not usually talking about Tetris.

But as it turns out, playing Tetris can have curious side effects. Some folks who play for prolonged periods of time report seeing the iconic tetromino shapes falling as they drift off to sleep, or when they close their eyes. (This has also been reported by jigsaw puzzle solvers, who see curved lines, and Rubik’s Cube solvers, who continue to see the constantly shifting colors of the cube.)

There are additional anecdotal stories of people viewing the world in a Tetris-y way after solving, fixating on how shapes could fit together.

It’s common enough, in fact, that it has its own term: The Tetris Effect.

It has also inspired a Tetris game of the same name, which is releasing later this year for the Playstation 4. Tetris Effect enhances the Tetris experience by tying musical themes and imagery to the traditional gameplay.

One player describes the play experience in an article for Kotaku:

I played the game in VR, though that is optional. The first time I landed a Tetris, the screen exploded in a beautiful display of particle effects, sea life swam around me, the controller vibrated and the music swelled in a way that sent chills down my spine — I’ve done this a million times before but not like this.

[Image courtesy of Eurogamer.]

The game also boasts a new solving trick — the Zone mechanic — which allows you to stop time and place several blocks at one time, meaning you could line up multiple pieces to drop at once and clear more lines. The previous limit was four lines, but now, with the Zone mechanic, it’s possible to clear out up to sixteen lines at once! (Naturally, there’s a term for that as well. It’s a decahexatris.)

This is an excitingly immersive evolution of the classic puzzle game, and I can’t wait to check it out.


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Computer Program Teaches Itself to Solve Rubik’s Cubes!

I tried to warn you, fellow puzzlers.

I wrote posts about computer programs that play chess, Scrabble, Go, Atari games, and Jeopardy! I wrote posts about programs that solve crosswords. I even wrote posts about robots that solve Rubik’s Cubes in a fraction of a second.

And they’re getting smarter.

Say hello to DeepCube, an AI program that is now the equal of any master Rubik’s Cube solver in the world at solving 3x3x3 cubes.

And unlike other AI programs that have learned to play games like chess and Go through reinforcement learning — determining if particular moves are bad or good — DeepCube taught itself to play by analyzing each move, comparing it to a completed cube, and reverse-engineering how to get to that move.

It’s labor-intensive, yes, but it also requires no human intervention and no previous information. Chess-playing programs like Deep Blue work by analyzing thousands of previously played games. But DeepCube had no previous history to build on.

It started from scratch. By itself.

And became a Rubik’s Cube master.

In only 44 hours.

Compare that to the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes for a human to become an expert in anything, and that’s a mind-blowing accomplishment.

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

From the Gizmodo article on DeepCube:

The system discovered “a notable amount of Rubik’s Cube knowledge during its training process,” write the researchers, including a strategy used by advanced speedcubers, namely a technique in which the corner and edge cubelets are matched together before they’re placed into their correct location.

Yes, the program even independently recreated techniques designed by human speed-solvers to crack the cubes faster.

The next goal for the DeepCube program is to pit it against 4x4x4 cubes, which are obviously more complex. But supposedly, deposing human puzzle solvers as the top dogs on the planet isn’t the finish line.

No, this sort of three-dimensional puzzle-solving is only an intermediate goal, with the ultimate endgame of predicting protein shapes, analyzing DNA, building better robots, and other advanced projects.

But first, they’re coming for our puzzles.


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Turn Your Smartphone Into a Rubik-Solving Sidekick?

I just can’t resist a bit of Rubik’s Cube news.

We’ve covered Rubik’s Cubes a lot on this blog. We’ve seen them solved underwater, while being juggled, during a skydive, and one move at a time by strangers on a world tour. And yes, we’ve seen them solved in increasing faster times, both by humans and machines.

The human record hovers around the five-second mark, while the machine record stands at .38 seconds, which is brain-meltingly fast.

Now there’s a new tool on the market to up your Rubik-solving game like never before. It’s called GoCube, and it’s on Kickstarter right now.

GoCube is a Rubik’s-inspired twisty puzzle that is Bluetooth-enabled in order to interact with a phone or tablet. It offers real-time updates on your solving progress — which corresponds to areas of the physical cube that light up — as well as carrying a whole host of other features.

You can use it as a training tool to teach you the tricks of the solving trade, whether you’re just learning how to solve a twisty puzzle or you have aspirations of being a speed-solver.

GoCube’s connectivity even allows you to compete in head-to-head solves with other users. Plus you can use the cube as a controller for mini-games, in dexterity challenges, and more.

This seems like an impressive step forward for twisty puzzles. Although the price tag is pretty hefty — the basic Kickstarter package starts at $69 (although the creators claim it will retail for $119) — the campaign has already blown past its initial goal of $25,000. It currently sits at over $400,000 in Kickstarter-backed funds with over a month to go.

Puzzles continue to grow and adapt to the modern technological revolution in unexpected and fascinating ways. I can’t wait to see what tech-savvy puzzlers cook up next.


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