AI powered robot sets a world record after beating humans in a classic marble maze game

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We’ve become almost complacent with the idea of computer systems learning how to beat the best human players at games of intellect such as chess, poker and Go. Now researchers at ETH Zurich, a university in Switzerland, have devised an AI that can beat the best humans at the old roll-the-marble-through-the-maze game. Its physical prowess and blistering speed is awesome.

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ETH professor Raffaello D’Andrea and his PhD student Thomas Bi started with a standard Brio Labyrinth and a desktop workstation. Coincidentally, the Labyrinth was introduced in 1946, the same year as ENIAC, the world’s first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer. The Brio product hasn’t changed in 77 years. The computer on the other hand…

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The researchers added two motors to turn the knobs that tilt the maze, and an overhead camera so the computer – which they dubbed CyberRunner – could see what it was doing. Then they gave it the task of getting ball from start to finish in the least time while avoiding the holes. Then they gave it five hours to practice.

Wait – first they stopped the test and told the computer that, even if it figured out a way to take a short cut through the maze, that wouldn’t do. They explained “cheating.” THEN they gave it five hours to practice.

The moment when CyberRunner realized it could take a short cut, going from 4 to 23 in the maze. Photo by ETH Zurich

The result, in a snappy video uploaded to YouTube, shows the machine jitterbugging its way through the maze in a time of just 14.48 seconds.

That’s almost a second and a half faster than the world record, held since 2011 by Lars-Goran Danielsson of Sweden, whose best official time stands at 15.95 seconds, according to (Guinness doesn’t list a record in this category.)

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In 2022, Danielsson managed to shave a half second off his previous time to finish in 15.41 seconds, though that hasn’t been confirmed yet. In any case, it’s still a billion nanoseconds slower than the A.I. And remember that it went from zero to expert in the space of an afternoon.

More information is available at the web site, where the researchers plan to release the hardware and coding specifications soon.

“We believe that this is the ideal test bed for research in real-world machine learning and AI,” D’Andrea said in a statement. “Prior to CyberRunner, only organizations with large budgets and custom-made experimental infrastructure could perform research in this area. Now, for less than 200 dollars, anyone can engage in cutting-edge AI research.”

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