Friday Fun: Untangled

Posted in: Friday Fun | December 14, 2012 | No Comments

After last week’s fairly heady Quantum Chess, I’m switching gears a bit this week.  Here’s a sciency game that is quick and ‘easy.’

The game: Untangled.  It is simple to play and works right in your browser, so nothing is holding you back! It’s a puzzle game where you’re trying to untangle (ah yes) a web of objects.  Imagine starting with a jumbled mess of rope, then trying to get it to lay flat.  Right now, the Demo is playable online – so try your hand at arranging the red rectangles.

But what does this puzzle have to do with science?  Electronics.  Electronic circuits and chips are ubiquitous, and can be pretty tough to design well.  You see, there are a bunch of components that need to get crammed side by side, as close as possible.  You want to minimize wasted space.  But on the other hand, you generally don’t want your ‘wires to cross’, so to speak.  It gets confusing fast, and you can tend to end up with a rat’s nest.  So the connections need to be organized nicely.  Whoa.  That’s just the game Untangled!

Well, the ‘red rectangles’ that you end up moving around actually represent electronics components, and the lines connecting them represent conductive paths.  But… why?  Well, it turns out this game is, itself, research.  Designing and untangling an optimal chip can be incredibly time-consuming for humans given the sheer number of nodes in the network.  Why not just have a computer design these things?  Well, humans have a leg up when it comes to visual reasoning.  We’re pretty darn good at puzzles like these, at least in small quantities.

So this game is looking to find out more about how humans do it.  And then, with any luck, we might be able to teach computers some of the strategies that we use.  So the players, just having fun with a simple game, may well be teaching computers some very important things.  Pretty Neat!



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