What Happens When Robots Lose?


We have all seen robots do amazing things, score goals, drive race cars and save lives.  While we (robot enthusiasts) marvel at the science, many people see the all-perfect all-winning robot as adding to the hysteria of our own human inferiority.  As we look towards a world where robots and humans will be interacting side-by-side, maybe its time to employ the grandparent strategy – let us win sometimes.

This might sounds like cute idea, but the robotic team at Carnegie Mellon University is doing just that, with Victor the all-loosing, trash-talking, scrabble robot.

“Sometimes, I hate this game,” says Victor, a Scrabble-playing robot created by students under the supervision of Reid Simmons, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University here. Victor’s secret is that he talks a better game than he plays. He is a champion trash talker. A typical put-down: “Since you’re human, I guess you think that’s a pretty good move.”

One recent day in a CMU student lounge, Victor took on Dorcas Alexander, one of the top-ranked (human) Scrabble players in Pennsylvania. Never before had the robot encountered such a skilled opponent. “She’s pushing him into an arena I’ve never seen,” Prof. Simmons said as Ms. Alexander went to work.

Dr. Simmons began developing Victor in 2009 to test how robots could “interact in a more natural way” with people. If robots are to perform such tasks as helping older people with household chores, Dr. Simmons said, it will help if the machines are more companionable than, say, a dishwasher. He chose Scrabble as Victor’s game because so many people know how to play it.

Robots have been trained to deal blackjack and play games including basketball, pool and chess. Scrabble is a new frontier. Though serious players have long honed their Scrabble skills against faceless computer programs, it isn’t clear how much demand there might be for wisecracking robots that play the game.

Victor’s head, a box-shaped computer screen, perches on a white fiberglass body. His animated screen image looks collegiate, with blond hair, rectangular glasses and a soul patch (think Max Headroom). Victor’s facial expressions and all of his sayings were created by CMU’s drama department. What Victor says depends on how the game is going and what people say to him.

When he is winning, Victor is likely to be boastful, uttering such lines as: “I am the current king of Scrabble, Victor the Mechanical Marvel. That’s Victor the Brilliant for short.”  When losing, he might say: “If I had $1 for every good word I played, I would still hate you.”

Professor Reid Simmons designed Victor to display a range of emotion. 

Sometimes Victor tells his back story: His parents are assembly-line robots in Detroit, and he came to CMU on a Scrabble scholarship. “He’s very insecure,” explained Michael Chemers, a former CMU drama professor who shaped the robot’s personality, drawing partly on memories of his own teenage years. “He’s capable of 18 different emotions, and most of them are bad.”

Victor was installed in a lounge in CMU’s Gates computer-science building 18 months ago so students could try him out. The robot sits at a table with a touch-screen Scrabble board. People move tiles by swiping their fingers across the screen.

If Victor deployed the full range of computer power available, he would be hard to beat. But Dr. Simmons didn’t want Victor to be so good that casual players would feel intimidated. While Victor’s opponents can use all 178,691 words allowed in North American Scrabble tournaments, Victor is limited to 8,592 words drawn from “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” a book Dr. Simmons liked as a teenager. Another handicap: Victor doesn’t know how to play strategically; he can’t look two or three moves ahead. Even Dr. Simmons, who describes himself as “very mediocre” at Scrabble, usually manages to beat the bot.

The ironic thing is people would rather play with a mediocre scrabble robot, and win every time, than the slam dunk Watson to be humiliated that their own capacity is a fraction of his processor.  Humans like to win, and robots don’t care either way, if this crossing the chasm then trash talking machine could very well be our future.  Being a New Yorker this is a comforting feeling.

* Thanks to the WSJ for inspiring and contributing to this post.

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