I never knew true despair until this robot beat me at Scrabble

The first thing that caught my eye was the enormous robot. The second was an empty stool.

For four days, I had been walking the too-noisy floor of the Consumer Electronics Show, an annual convention of bad ideas in the middle of a city (Las Vegas) whose reputation is forged with the steel of bad ideas. After watching a parade of rolling iPads masquerading as robots, I had arrived at a booth for the vaguely named Industrial Technology Research Institute, a Taiwan-based research and consulting firm. The Institute spends most of it days building pesticide-residue detectors and smarter battery-management technology, but for CES it had brought a novelty robot with an unwieldy name: Intelligent Vision System for Companion Robots. IVSCR (so unwieldy!) happens to be proficient in Scrabble.

Truth be told, this robot shouldn’t be here. It’s a stunt for conference-goers and press alike, because this is a consumer electronic show and this is not a consumer product. The robot is made of two industrial robotic arms that cost at least $35,000 each, plus a custom body and head. ITRI doesn’t even sell gadgets or robots—it’s a research institute. Nor is the robot really here to demonstrate Scrabble skills, so much as an ability to recognize and interact with objects around it in a constructive way. IVSCR’s task could have just as easily been stacking cups or building houses out of blocks, but those don’t entice 20-something tech writers to blog about the experience.

(And the robot is impressive, in its way. While IVSCR might lack in smarts when stacked against a master board-game AI like DeepMind’s AlphaZero, its ability to manipulate relatively small game pieces is rare. DeepMind itself opted not to build AlphaZero a mechanical arm, instead having a human place Go’s tiny circular game pieces on the board.)

In the wild, no sane animal volunteers for a fight against something bigger, stronger, and smarter than it. And yet I find myself sitting down on the (spitefully) short stool across from this robot. Flanked by my Quartz colleague Mike Murphy, who is on a related quest to find the show’s dumbest marketing, I look up and gauge my opponent.

Robots cannot yet hold Scrabble tiles, so I pick up seven of the custom Scrabble cubes we’re using to play, and place them in a tilted cube-holder. IVSCR does the same, carefully arranging them in printed squares on its side of the oversized board. While my letters are tilted towards me, I can see the robot’s. (At first, this seems like a good thing.)

I play the first word. W-I-N. Mike yells “TWIN!” and I blink, not understanding what he means and already intimidated by the thousand pounds of steel sitting across from me. “You could have played the word ‘twin’ instead of ‘win,'” Mike says. I ignore him, because I am playing an intense game of Scrabble and need no distractions. I have earned 12 points.

Now it’s the robot’s turn. It places its first letter uncomfortably far from the letter its word will intersect. D-U-N-A-M-S. 19 points. I don’t know what dunams means, but Mike is already googling it. He informs me its a Turkish unit of measurement. I don’t respond to this information because I am trying to win an important game of Scrabble.

I’m thinking that if I maximize the amount of words I play per turn, I will surely win. So next I play “IT” and “TAB,” taking the “I” from “WIN” and the “A” from “DUNAMS.” I sit back, proud. Now I have 19 points, too. A representative from ITRI moves my cubes from being so close to each other, and I’m reminded that I am a messy human who cannot follow the simple cube-placing norms well-established when playing against a robot.

As the robot considers its next move, I glance at the letters in its row. I see an X, worth 8 points, and a Q worth 10. Uh oh. While I tend to employ these high scorers on words like “Qi” and “Xi,” I suspect IVSCR knows some 13-letter word that features both letters and can hit a triple word score.

It begins to play its first letter—an “I”—delicately placing the cube on a double word score. Next, it plays an “X.” I groan, and hear Mike laughing beside me. I ignore him because I have an important game of Scrabble to win. The complete word is “IXORAS,” which Mike tells me is a genus of flowering bushes.

This is the final straw. My brain ceases to think. I start frantically rearranging my cubes to form a word, any word, that might close the gap between the robot’s 45 points and my 19. The word needs to have a vowel, but I only have an “A,” a “U,” and some useless consonants. It also needs to hit a double word score, at least. I lose focus on the cubes and think about the ghosts of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. I wonder if they would be proud to see me so humiliated by a computer. (Was it worth it, Charles?)

In the end, the pressure got to me. I cracked. I did nothing for what felt like 10 minutes but was more like one. Then a soothing robotic voice said “Times up,” and the robot handed me an ITRI-branded pencil sharpener, which I quietly declined.

If Scrabble were a game of dexterity or precision, it’s likely I would have won. There’s no question that robots are superhuman in simple pattern-matching, like running the different combinations of available letters against a dictionary. Maybe if it were a juggling contest, I would have come out on top. But Scrabble is not that game, and I’m not a great juggler anyway. So instead, I slipped off the stool and slinked away from the booth, my colleague Mike Murphy not far behind.

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