So-So Random

In high school, I decided that reading and video games weren’t nerdy enough hobbies for me, and that I should pick up speedcubing. For the uninitiated, that’s slang for competitive Rubik’s cube solving. Contrary to popular thought, being able to solve a Rubik’s cube has basically nothing to do with intelligence. Well, it does if you’re able to solve it brute-force style without any outside help, like the guy in Pursuit of Happiness.”

But speedcubers aren’t about concerned with cleverness or logic or other skills of mind you might employ to complete other sorts of puzzles, like a riddle or a word problem. We just care about algorithms. Algorithms, in this context, mean a specific series of rotations required to move one block of the cube (or sometimes a group) to a desired position. Use the right algorithms in the right order, and you’ve got a solved cube.

Humans are pretty good at this sort of thing: Collin Burns, a teen American speedcuber and current world-record holder, can solve the 3×3 cube in just over 5 seconds.

What humans aren’t so good at, however, is undoing the puzzle – that is, resetting or “scrambling” the cube so that it can be solved again. It’s pretty standard practice amongst speedcubers to use services like CubeTimer.com to generate a random series of moves to scramble their cubes, rather than try to do it on their own.

A series of moves for scrambling your cube, as generated by CubeTimer. The letters indicate which side to turn, the presence of an apostrophe means turn counter-clockwise, and "2" means do a 180-degree turn.
A series of moves for scrambling your cube, as generated by CubeTimer. The letters indicate which side to turn, the presence of an apostrophe means turn counter-clockwise, and “2” means do a 180-degree turn.

Why? Because humans suck at being random. We have a hard time escaping constraints like muscle memory and instinct to perform actions that are “truly” random, not just what feels random to us.

In my post last week, I expressed my skepticism at computers’ abilities to surpass humans at the abstract tasks we have difficulty explaining, much less programming, ourselves. However, it occurred to me as we were looking at works like Strachey’s “Love Letters” or Queneau’s “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems”, that computers already do excel at at least one thing that we humans struggle with: being random.

A large part of e-lit’s struggle for acceptance and legitimacy, I think, hinges on the artistic value we assign randomness. At least from what I’ve seen, the trend is to brand randomly generated creations as lazy or uninspired: criticism of paint-flinging artists like Jackson Pollock comes to mind. However, it seems that creators are constantly finding new ways to embrace and introduce “true” randomness (i.e. that on a scope and/or to a degree of accuracy afforded only by computers) into their works. Pieces that blend computer-generated randomness with human ingenuity offer a unique glimpse at the creative power available when a computer acts as a tool to extend human genius, rather than replace it.

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