This CMU-Built, Trash-Talking Robot Wants To Beat You At Scrabble

Mar 31, 2014

Victor, created by a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is the latest in a series of social robots designed to study human-robot interaction.
Credit Courtesy Carnegie Mellon University

Victor sits in the lounge of Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science building ready to take on anyone in a game of Scrabble.

He’s cocky, and his taunts can be heard across the room.

“Is that all you’ve got?” he shouts from behind his virtual Scrabble board.

Victor has an attitude not atypical of a 17-year-old college freshman. But here's the thing: He’s a robot.

Created by Reid Simmons, a research professor at CMU’s Robotics Institute, Victor is the latest in a series of social robots designed as a tool to study human-robot interaction.

Simmons said he looks forward to the day when robots become part of everyday life, but before that can happen, researchers need to find out what it takes for humans to be comfortable around the animatronic machines.

“In order to be accepted by people, they (robots) need to act more like people,” he said. “They need to have the social norms that people use, the way that they interact conversationally, verbal and non-verbal cues that they use for interaction and also emotion.”

Simmons and his team are using Victor to study how mood changes affect a human’s willingness to interact with robots and how personalization plays into long-term interaction.

So when it comes to Scrabble, Victor’s skill is actually mediocre at best. He has an 8,600-word vocabulary, which doesn’t begin to compare to the 178,000 words that make up the Official Scrabble Player Dictionary, and he doesn’t bother with double- and triple-word scores. He has no arms to move his tiles; instead Victor places his pieces electronically, while challengers drag their fingers across the screen to place theirs.

During a game, Victor will lower his head in concentration or stare into the eyes of his opponent while critiquing their moves. A light on his chest will change hues and pulsate at different speeds depending on his mood.

“Emotion is very important in human-human interaction,” Simmons said, “and by having this kind of ability to change emotion depending on situations, we believe that it will feel more like interacting with a person.”

Simmons said Victor has the ability to learn emotional responses through gameplay experiences with different players over time.

“If it knows that it normally beats you, it might not be as sarcastic because it doesn’t want to hurt your feelings,” he said. “Or maybe if you always beat it, but it happens to beat you on one particular day, it might be actually much more enthusiastic about it.”

Victor’s backstory, dialogue and personality were developed by Michael Chemers, an associate professor of theater arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz and members of CMU’s drama department. Victor’s attitude is “edgy enough to be engaging, but not so much that people don’t want to play,” Simmons said.

Challengers can find Victor on the third floor of CMU’s Gates and Hillman Centers, but if you want to play, be prepared to handle the trash talk: “If I had limbs, I still wouldn’t shake your hand.”