Racing micromice set record for maze solving, raise questions about robot intelligence

Task-focused robots are efficient; what do we do when they're smart, too

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Building a better mousetrap is supposed to be one of the no-fail ways to get the world to beat a path to your door. But what if, while you're building a better mousetrap, someone else is building a better mouse?

Competitors in the annual All Japan Micromouse contest have been working on that for 32 years – one of a micro-industry of contests designed to give new or amateur robotics and electronics designers a forum to show off their latest ideas.

The goal, as with tests on real mice, is to negotiate a maze as quickly as possible.

Micromouse learning its way

The micro-mice – all of them autonomous, not remote-controlled as are the highest-end robots in military use – get practice time on the 16-by-16-foot maze to learn the way through and scout back to find out if the first path it found through is really the fastest one.

They compete to see which can make the fastest run from start to finish.

This year's winner, Ng Beng Kiat's Min7 won with a time of 3.982 seconds – the first winner to break four seconds.

Micromouse competition aficionados describe Ng Beng Kiat, whose list of prizes won is as long as his bullet-list history of the development of his own mice – as king of the sport, though not a terribly remote one. He shares his engineering secrets pretty easily.

Racing micromouse

The micromouse competition highlights a split in robotics design: is it better to design devices focused on a particular set of functions, whose shape and coding are optimized for those functions?

Photo Credit: 

Ng Beng Kiat, Singapore

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