If you’re a child of the 80s (or 90s), you must remember the Rubik’s Cube! You know, that multicoloured cube that some of the more “intellectual” kids used to have in their rooms? In fact, you may even have whiled away the hours trying to solve it. Okay, perhaps 5 minutes before stopping out of frustration! The point is, they were hard! Like, really hard!
And, as if to crush all of our childhood dreams in one fell swoop, some snarky robot has managed to complete the legendary cube… in 0.637 seconds! That is a ridiculous time and really goes to show how much technology has advanced over the past two decades.
A bit of backstory for those who don’t remember the Rubik’s Cube too well. It was created by Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik in the late 1970s. The cube was intended as a 3D puzzle to be solved, and it would drive generations mad for decades!
Many people have solved it over the years, and you probably had that one friend who always could. But the speed and precision with which the Sub1 Reloaded robot did it makes a mockery of that. The record was set by German technology manufacturer Infineon. They performed the stunt earlier this month at the Electronica fair in Munich. The world record attempt smashed the previous world record of 0.887 seconds. This was actually set by an earlier version of the same robot. Only the processor being used was different.
By contrast, if we are to look at the human world records for this they are considerably higher, though still impressive. The current world record is held by one Mats Valk of the Netherlands, who solved the cube in 4.74 seconds! He beat the standing human record of 4.904 seconds, set back in 2015. To be fair to Mats, the Sub1 did use six motors to spin the columns, and that’s why it solved it so quickly.
There has been controversy surrounding the point of the exercise. Many have viewed it as little more than showboating. However, Infineon claims that the attempt was to showcase their technology for driverless cars. Indeed, Gregor Rodehüser has said that they want to show how problems can be solved through microelectronics.
Autonomous driving looks set to represent the future of the car industry. And with the problems we have already seen vis-à-vis driverless cars, this might not be such a bad experiment. Some experts, such as Noel Sharkey, speculate whether the experiment is even related to autonomous driving.
Most of the criticism stems from the fact that autonomous driving isn’t based on algorithms as Rubik’s Cubes are. This further raises issues about whether computers and machines are the right way forward with driving. For instance, a robot is incapable of independent thought. As such, it can’t rely on instinct and split-second decision making.
We could look at things another way and ask what the point is of these sorts of experiments. An opinion piece in The Verge poses the question and wonders whether we’d be better-suited training robots to do more worthwhile things. Of course, this is all subjective, but there is scope for questioning. We are developing so much technology at such a rapid rate, and yet we are so limited as to what we test it on.
There was talk not long ago of having the first book written by a computer. When can we expect to see that? How long will we have to wait before a computer tops the New York Times Bestseller list? Perhaps a while yet, but it’s true that we could be branching out, and teaching our robots and machines a wider range of skills and experiences.
This also makes us think about the nature of accomplishment. When viewing the videos of Mats and Sub1 completing their cubes, it’s pretty clear that Mats was happier. The nature of accomplishment says a lot about us as humans and is a big part of why we do things and how we progress as a race. Robots and machines cannot feel or sense accomplishment. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it’s certainly an existential question. But the fact remains that humans derive more from fulfilment.
But we may reach a point in time where machines and robots take over all of our jobs. Then we could be heading towards a Sky Net, Terminator 2 type situation! When humans become obsolete because machines are doing everything, that’s when we need to worry. For now, as long as we use them to help in our discoveries and our accomplishments they serve a valuable purpose.
Whether this achievement by Sub1 is a genuine demonstration or a publicity stunt on the part of Infineon remains to be seen. But, there is no taking away from the impressiveness of the accomplishment. It’s still a mightily impressive achievement. Though Infineon will have to wait a while before popping that champagne.
The record has to be qualified by the Guinness World Record. And this will mean the team submitting evidence to corroborate the claim. For now, we should think of it more like a coma world record. But, we’re sure, if push came to shove, Sub1 could do it all over again. The question, though, remains… Why?