Apr 16 2014

Carnegie Mellon Invented a Trash-Talking, Scrabble-Playing Robot

This robot is breaking new ground in artificial intelligence and can challenge students in everyone’s favorite word game.

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, those looking for a Scrabble opponent don't have to call up friends or wander around with a board in hand. They just have to challenge Victor, a robot designed to play Scrabble and emulate a human gameplay experience.

“We wanted a robot that could interact with people doing a joint task. We figured people would like to play games, and so we'd make the robot play games with people,” Reid Simmons, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University and adviser on the project, said in an interview with the university.

And that's when the idea of constructing Victor, the Scrabble-playing robot, was born. Victor is essentially a soul-patched face on a screen that sits atop a limbless fiberglass body. He has no ability to physically interact with players challenging him on the touchscreen board, but his capacity for verbal exchanges compensates for his lack of tactile abilities.

Scrabble was chosen due to its focus on language, which allowed for more flexibility in Victor's conversational topics. There is a far greater range of reactions to playing the word "dog" than there is in purchasing Park Place in Monopoly, for example.

Victor's human competitors, who are free to challenge him to a game while he sits in the student center on campus, have a natural advantage. His vocabulary is limited to just 8,592 words plucked from "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." Plus, he's designed to avoid persistently outwitting opponents for fear of discouraging people from interacting with him, as Simmons told the Wall Street Journal.

But his true value lies not in how well he competes but in how well he converses and interacts.

"If we have a robot, a service robot, in someone's house as an assistant to someone who's elderly or with disabilities, then this machine is going to be there for 24/7,” Simmons said. “And if they feel that it's more than just a machine, more than just, like, their dishwasher, their microwave, it should interact with them in ways that they believe that anthropomorphic beings should."

But Victor isn't caring for the elderly, and as such, his reactions may be a bit fiercer than one would expect from a robot.

"Next time you might do better, or not, sucker," Victor says with a monotone in one of his many taunts.

Victor's vocalizations come courtesy of Michael Chemers, an associate professor of theater arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Although Victor represents a step forward for robotics, his musings might break the first rule of robotics, which states: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." After all, he's already bruised the egos of those he's beaten at Scrabble.

<p><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvXuphbHqkA" target="_blank" title="CMU Computer Science">CMU Computer Science</a></p>