We Must Imagine This Robot Is Happy

New Scientist has the story of Rowan University students Zachary Grady and Joe Ridgeway and their astonishing Rubik’s-cube-solving robot, seen in the video above. Two things strike me: the robot’s singular purpose, and its radical decomposition of the gestures we befingered human beings use to play with the puzzle. It’s the same sort of abstraction that went into the invention of the wheel, transforming the action of walking feet into a mechanical dance never before seen in nature.

There’s something moving about this robot; it seems as if it might be lonely, living in a universe composed only of Rubik’s cube—like Sisyphus, the damned king of Greek myth, toiling in solitude on a hillside in Hades. Camus argued that for Sisyphus, victory lay in embracing his fate. Given the aplomb with which the Rubik’s-cube robot pursues its single task, it seems like a kind of acceptance is hardwired into its existence—acknowledgment of the absurd expressed between lines of code.

Of course a puzzle-solving robot, no matter how accomplished, isn’t tantamount to the invention of the wheel. But there is more than a hint of revolution in its makeup. It’s a robot that expresses something like the opposite of the uncanny, suggesting a future in which robots do familiar jobs in striking and unfamiliar ways, ways that alienate and elude scrutiny—or comfort us in their estranged, ghostlike invisibility. Like Sisyphus doing our heavy lifting.

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