Scrabble-playing robot is rude, not very good

Victor the Scrabble-playing robot isn\'t terribly good, and a poor sport. (Courtesy Carnegie Mellon Univ.)

WASHINGTON — What’s a 5-letter word for a trash-talking, moderately-skilled, Scrabble-playing poor sport?


More specifically, Victor the Gamebot.

Reid Simmons, a research professor in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, began developing Victor in 2009.

“We wanted to look at how people would interact with a mechanical robot for long periods of time,” says Simmons.

Simmons says limited-use technology — such as games — is often enjoyed for a short period of time before users get bored. And getting beaten every time by a perfectly performing computer can be discouraging for humans.

The goal of Simmons’ research was to develop a device that people would be willing to interact with, over months or years.

So Simmons developed a robot with flaws.

“Our aim was not to make a particularly good Scrabble player,” says Simmons. “Our aim was to make a robot that would be engaging for people to interact with.”

Simmons says demand is growing for “smart devices” that will play roles in human lives.

“Robots are coming,” says Simmons. “At some point they’ll be in our homes; they’ll be assisting our elderly parents, people with disabilities, and for them to be accepted, they need to be more than just machines.”

The challenge for Simmons? Make an inanimate object more like a human.

“They need to be less robotic,” says Simmons. “We wanted to see if we could make a robot more engaging.”

Victor the Gamebot is snarky

Simmons says in experiments where a person plays against a computer, “the computer makes a move, then it’s your turn, and that’s basically it.”

Students who sit down for a game of Scrabble in the lounge in the computer science building at the Pittsburgh school are across the table from a blockheaded fiberglass robot with changing animated facial features, whose head can turn.

“It is looking at you; it’s looking at the board. It’s making comments about what its upcoming move might be,” says Simmons. “It’s a much more engaging experience.”

The robot, who has its own Facebook page, is programmed to make moves in approximately the same time period that it takes a human to play.

Simmons says Victor has been programmed to have “moods,” according to how the game is progressing and the interaction with its human opponent.

“When it’s happy, it tends to be more optimistic about its own chances of winning and tends to be less sarcastic toward its opponents,” says Simmons.

When it’s losing, Victor’s persona becomes angrier and more sarcastic, with darker facial expressions and darker conversation.

“If you’re nice to the robot, it will be happier,” says Simmons.

Would Victor have any friends in real life?

Simmons takes no offense when it’s mentioned that Victor sounds like a not-very- nice person that few would want to be around.

“That’s what we’re trying to explore,” says Simmons. “How much can we push buttons and still get people to be interested in playing with the robot. …

“We want to see whether this type of personality is something people will like or whether it’ll get on their nerves,” says Simmons.

In addition to its limited Scrabble skills, Simmons says Victor’s opinion of himself and his game-playing prowess are skewed from reality, which may help lure would-be opponents.

“It’s a mediocre player,” says Simmons. “People have hopes of beating it.”

And they often do.

See Victor the Gamebot in action:

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