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Robot beats Rubik's Cube, but some humans are faster

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It was probably inevitable: the creation of Rubik's Cube-solving robots. Last year, two such mechanical gamesters were constructed: one by college students at the University of Illinois; another by engineers at Battelle's Pacific Northwest Laboratories.

They join several generations of chess-playing computers, swelling the ranks of game-playing machines which, perhaps, are the truest sign that the age of artificial intelligence has dawned.

Cubot, the Battelle creation, is the faster and more sophisticated of the two cube-playing robots. It can unscramble the cube in two to three minutes. While this is much faster than most humans can manage, it is well above the best human times, which are under 30 seconds.

Battelle's robot was assembled out of $7,000 worth of electronic components. It doesn't look anything like the fictional robots in ''Star Wars,'' but it rather resembles a three-dimensional letter ''U'' made of clear plastic and aluminum. It is 6 inches thick, 22 inches wide, and 17 inches high; weighs 70 pounds; and fits into a suitcase, says Robert Dyer, the head of the team of about 20 Battelle engineers who designed and built it.

''I had gotten a microprocessor chip in the mail and was wondering what I could do with it when the inspiration came,'' Mr. Dyer explains, when asked how he got the idea. ''It was just for fun. It was a chance to do something no one else had done. And, of course, I felt it would be a good public-relations demonstration of our capabilities,'' elaborates the engineer, who normally designs high-speed, automated inspection systems for military and industrial applications.

Cubot was strictly an extracurricular effort. The laboratory's only direct involvement was in purchasing the hardware. ''If you could buy this in Neiman-Marcus, it would probably cost $40,000 to $50,000,'' he figures.


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