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

Quartz/ Dave Gershgorn
My doom was imminent.
  • Dave Gershgorn
By Dave Gershgorn

Artificial intelligence reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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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