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Innovation & Startups

Carnegie Mellon robot plays mean game of SCRABBLE


There’s some stiff SCRABBLE competition at Carnegie Mellon University. So stiff in fact, that the fierce competitor inhabits a body encased in plastic. Victor the Gamebot, the latest in a series of social robots developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, is a limbless torso with a mobile head and animated face who spends most of his time trash-talking opponents across a SCRABBLE board. 

“We believe that robots will soon be ubiquitous in society,” says Reid Simmons, research professor and associate director for education at the CMU Robotics Institute. “We want them to be able to interact with people just in the same way people interact with other humans.”

If an elderly person or someone with disabilities has a service robot with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, people will begin to feel it is more than a machine — and expect it to interact with them in anthropomorphic ways they would not expect from their dishwasher or microwave, says Simmons.

The research team behind Victor includes collaborators from robotics, computer science, drama, design and entertainment technology. They wanted to develop a robot that would interact with people while completing a joint task. 

Located near a cafe on the third floor of CMU's Gates and Hillman centers, Victor electronically move his tiles while his human opponents move their virtual tiles on the touchscreen board using their fingers. Victor converses with opponents with his voice, and people reply to him using keyboards. 

“We figured people would like to play games, so we’d make the robot play games with people,” says Simmons. “They could interact during the game, and the robot could comment on the moves the people make and how it’s doing relative to the person.” 

Indeed, Victor speaks freely throughout gameplay. Perhaps a little too freely.

After his opponent played the word “wave” for 14 points, Victor chides, “I have seen better, but not from you.”

Simmons says he was surprised by how strongly people react to Victor when he becomes angry while losing a game. Opponents can observe Victor’s mood thanks to a light over the gamebot’s heart that changes color and pulsates at different speeds depending on his mood. 

“When he’s in a good mood and kind of bantering, people don’t tend to type much to him,” says Simmons. “But when he starts trash talking them, they start trash talking right back. …I think people feel that the robot — just because he’s losing — he shouldn’t be a bad sport.”

While Victor has a high opinion of his SCRABBLE skills, he is not a strategic player. He’s not particularly concerned with double- and triple-word scores, and his 8,600-word vocabulary is hardly a match for the 178,000 words in the Official SCRABBLE Player Dictionary. Eventually, the researchers will enable him to recognize previous players and adjust his level of play to that of his opponents. 

Writer: Amanda Leff Ritchie
Sources: Carnegie Mellon University
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