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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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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What Can YOU Solve In Under a Second?

Oh yes, it’s Rubik’s Cube time once again.

Every time I think I’ve seen everything someone can do with a Rubik’s Cube, a month or two later, another amazing video appears on the Internet, proving me wrong.

We’ve covered Rubik’s Cubes a lot on this blog. We’ve seen them solved underwater, while being juggled, during a skydive, and yes, we’ve seen them solved in increasing faster times.

As of last year, the record for a robot solving a Rubik’s Cube was .637 seconds. That robot, Sub1, has been the Guinness World Record holder ever since.

Until now, it seems.

That’s a right, a pair of engineers — Ben Katz and Jared Di Carlo — have nearly halved that world record with what they call their “Rubik’s Contraption.” This cube-solving bot posts a solving speed of .38 seconds.

Their machine is so fast that they had to program it to only allow one motor to move at a time. You see, in previous runs, more than one motor would try to move, and the cube would be RIPPED APART.

This lightning-fast robot is still waiting review by the team from Guinness, so, for now, Sub1’s record stands.

But for how long?


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The Rubik’s Cube World Championship!

This past week, Rubik’s Cube enthusiasts from around the world convened in Paris, France, for the Rubik’s Cube World Championship.

The event spanned three days, welcoming over 1,000 competitors from dozens of different countries to test their speed-solving abilities against fellow solvers.

Think about that. Dozens of countries. The Rubik’s Cube is truly ubiquitous these days. (Rubikquitous, perhaps?)

Although the bulk of the competitions were centered around speed, the list of events was pretty impressive, including solving a cube in the fewest moves, solving blindfolded, solving one-handed, and even solving with your feet! Plus there were events where competitors solved variations on the classic cube!

[From left to right, a Skewb, a Megaminx, and a Pyraminx. All three cube variants were used in speed-solving competitions.]

You can check out all of the results from the Championship by clicking here. But I do want to make a point of highlighting just how quick these competitors are.

The speeds we are talking about here? Mind-blowing. The 3×3 cube champion averaged 6.85 seconds across 5 solves. His fastest solve was 5.87 seconds. That’s madness.

And that level of speed was not an outlier. You had to ratchet things up in both size and complexity, all the way to a 6×6 cube, before a championship-winning time exceeded one minute.

But individual achievement was not the only game in town here. For the first time, three-member teams from various countries competed in the Rubik’s Nations Cup.

The competition was modeled around a relay race. The first team member would solve a cube, then the second, then the third, and their aggregate time (as well as individual times) recorded.

72 teams competed in the Nations Cup, but the victory went to one of the German teams! Although it wasn’t a sanctioned event, it was a real crowd pleaser, and something that would definitely offer some puzzly bragging rights on the speed-solving circuit.

And although this was a competition, the spirit of camaraderie and community that infused the event was wonderful. You could really sense that this was an opportunity to make friends, to show off your skills, and to remember that puzzling is a universal language, whether you’re talking crosswords or cubes.

You can check out some of the event highlights, as well as a message from Erno Rubik himself, in this video:

All in all, it looks like an absolute blast was had. Now that’s some quality puzzling.


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