The Rubik’s Cube of Augmented Cognition


At first it struck me as another throwaway piece tech trivia.

It was about a student in Prague named Martin Španěl who developed an augmented reality app that helps the user solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle. The idea is that you point your AR camera at the cube, turn the cube so that three sides are visible at once, and then receive instructions from your AR screen (presumably a smartphone or AR goggles) about which way to turn the cube in order to solve the puzzle (see video).

In some ways, there’s nothing special about this. We take a lot of instructions from smart devices these days, whether we’re getting directions from our GPS devices while driving around a strange city or just engaging with a chess tutorial on our smartphone.

Is this AR app so different? Only in one respect: it demonstrates how pervasive augmented cognition could become once AR technology comes into its own. In demonstrations of AR tech, we usually see people fiddling with virtual objects for the purposes of media-watching, play, design or virtual interactions with others. But seldom have I seen, at least so far, demonstrations of how VR devices will be embedded with the kinds of digital skills that could enhance the practical cognitive abilities of users in a seamless way.


It raises all kind of intriguing possibilities. When wearing AR glasses, will users be able to use AI apps to solve (or, rather, be given solutions to) all kinds of problems? How many square feet are in the area of the floor I’m looking at? How tall is that building? What’s the right answer to the mathematical equation someone drew on the whiteboard? How do I repair this car engine or broken faucet or busted refrigerator?

The possibilities are endless.

There will almost certainly come times when machine learning systems spook us with their abilities. We may see correlations everywhere. “When you watch television before bed,” your device may report, “you lose an average of 33 minutes of sleep at night.” Learning systems could even tell us about one another. “Joe appears stressed this morning,” your AR might say. “You should say something nice to him. That improves his mood 74% of the time.”

These mergers of AI with AR will present their own set of problems, from information overload to the atrophying of traditional skills. My wife, for example, teaches middle school students. Many of them have no clear idea of how to read an analog clock because they’ve become accustomed to digital readouts. They’ve literally lost the ability to tell time via traditional clocks.

Now imagine a world in which thousands of apps do a larger proportion of our thinking for us.  It’s hard to know how much we stand to gain from such devices, and how much we stand to lose. In the end, this may be one of the hardest puzzles of all to solve.

— Mark Vickers


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