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If you've ever tried to solve a Rubik's Cube, you know how hard it can be to do that, let alone do it fast. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports on a couple of software developers in Kansas City who've built a robot that can unscramble a Rubik's Cube so fast it's likely to set a world record this week.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: In the early '80s, lots of kids, like Paul Rose, had to have one of those colorful, 3-by-3 cube puzzles.
PAUL ROSE: I got a Rubik's Cube, and spent a little bit of time trying to figure it out. And after a week or so, put it down because I couldn't get it.
MORRIS: No shame there. Heck, it took Erno Rubik more than a month to unscramble his own invention the first time. Will Wooden, a skinny, blond 12-year-old, solves them much faster.
WILL WOODEN: We call them speed cubers. Speed cubers are, like, people who solve Rubik's Cubes for a living and can do it, like, really fast.
MORRIS: Wooden's sitting in his room in Kansas City at a small table piled with Rubik's Cubes, quickly spinning the one in his hands, completing solve after solve as he talks, and timing the results.
WILL: Seventeen seconds, but - I'm not as fast as those other guys, but I'm getting there. I'm getting there.
MORRIS: A couple of months ago, 14-year-old from Kentucky broke the record, solving a standard Rubik's Cube in just under five seconds. Paul Rose says a machine made of Lego Mindstorms can do it in three-and-a-quarter.
ROSE: I was very impressed that it could be done, but at the same time I thought if they can have a world record with Legos, I bet we can make one faster.
MORRIS: By we, Rose means he and his coworker, Jay Flatland. They develop software at a high-speed stock trading company in Kansas City. This is where they've set up their robot, though robot seems a pretty lofty description for this contraption. Little black cameras screwed to two-by-fours point toward a Rubik's Cube. Short plastic arms grip the center block on each side of the cube. Small motor turn the arms. The whole thing's wired to a desktop computer.
JAY FLATLAND: OK, 3, 2, 1.
ROSE: One point oh-five seconds.
FLATLAND: What's the hold up here?
ROSE: One point oh-five is great. That's nearly as good as we've gotten without exploding the cube.
MORRIS: (Laughter) How close was that cube to blowing up just now?
ROSE: I don't know. It was pretty close.
MORRIS: Well, not really blow up, but cubes do fly apart, even ones specially built for speed and greased with plenty of cube lube. At the top of this sport the mental work is lightning fast, but physically manipulating the cube slows things down. Flatland says something he acquired this summer got him thinking about speed.
FLATLAND: So I bought a 3-D printer and was kind of try to find a project to learn how to use it. And then we came with up this idea of building the Rubik's Cube-solving robot, and it seemed like a perfect fit.
MORRIS: It was, because the printer let Flatland quickly build, test and modify parts. The whole project took Rose and Flatland about six months of their spare time. A judge from Guinness will be in town from New York on Friday to oversee the world record attempt. Rose and Flatland hope to solve a cube in under a second, then publish all the specs for the robot to give future record-seekers a head start. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.