2014-03-27 / Local & State

CMU Develops Trash-talking, Scrabble-playing Robot

By Michael Machosky

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Victor, the Scrabble-playing robot, does not like to lose.

It’s arguably his most human quality. Even when he’s winning, he tries to get under your skin.

Dr. Reid Simmons, who developed Victor with some of his students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, purposely puts down the word “NO,” playing off a blank tile, for a grand total of 1 point.

“This is not golf,” Victor says. “You want to get a high score.”

Victor, the trash-talking, Scrabble-playing robot, needles his opponents with obvious glee.

“For most people, it’s fairly sarcastic, but it will praise you for a good word,” Simmons says. “When it’s losing badly, it really lets loose. It’ll blame the Scrabble gods, and complain about the tiles it ends up with.

Victor has a computer monitor for a head, and a white plastic body. His face is computer-generated, but should look fairly familiar to anyone who’s been to college: black wire-framed glasses, soul patch, perpetual smirk. He looks like he runs on electricity and limitless supplies of sarcasm, and he does.

Victor sits behind a flatscreenembedded table, on which the computer-generated Scrabble board appears. Victor is set up in the student cafe/lounge – inside the angular, futuristic Gates Center for Computer Science. On a recent morning, most of the students sitting around quietly talking or studying ignore Victor.

Ian Foreman, 17, of Columbus, was intrigued, though. He was on a campus visit, hoping to study robotics someday.

“It’s weird,” he says. “I love this stuff, actually. I do First Robotics (a high-school robotics competition) at my school. I program the visual systems.”

He proceeds to put down a few words that don’t connect to previous words in the usual manner.

“I’m not very good at Scrabble,” Foreman admits.

Victor actually falls silent, his head drooping at an odd angle.

Victor is designed to help researchers at CMU’s Robotics Institute develop more “natural” ways of interacting with people.

“We want them to be more than machines,” Simmons says. “We’re looking at applications where robots would be assistants to the elderly, to those with disabilities – service robots in your house. If it’s a mobile robot, we believe people would like to interact with it at a more social level.”

The Quality of Life Technology Center at CMU studies this very subject intensely.

It has been found that people tend to name their Roomba vacuum cleaner robots, even giving them accessories and hats. There’s something about a mobile, somewhat-autonomous robot that people seem to respond to.

Carnegie Mellon’s esteemed Robotics Institute is likely among the most robot-friendly places in the world. They even have a robotic receptionist named Tank. The trick is to get people to pay attention to the robot for more than a few minutes at a time.

This is not the Scrabble-playing equivalent of IBM’s chessplaying computer Deep Blue (which began at CMU), or the air hockey-playing robot at the Carnegie Science Center. Victor’s Scrabble skills can best be described as “OK.” Starting the game with the word “SEASONS” is kind of a rookie move. It’s best to keep those “S” tiles in reserve for big plays later.

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