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by NASPA Co-President John Chew
Quiet applause erupted from the crowd of mesmerized onlookers, who had been distracted from state-of-the-art holograms and futuristic cars by the sight of a man and a robot playing at a SCRABBLE board.
The man was Will Anderson, the reigning North American SCRABBLE Champion, and he had just beaten his electronic opponent 364-309 in one of the stranger games that I have seen. The robot had flown from Taiwan with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) to demonstrate their Intelligent Vision System for Companion Robots (IVS): technology that lets robots interact with people in the real world using artificial intelligence, 3D vision recognition, and eye-hand coordination.
Will was there at ITRI's invitation, thanks to a publicist who knew that major international media couldn't resist turning up to see who would win in a man vs. machine contest.
The robot's goal though was not to win, but to show that people could have fun playing a board game with it. It talked with its opponent chattily, waved animatedly, and was in general a good sport and a fun opponent.
Will played one warmup game, in which we worked out the quirks of the robot's SCRABBLE software, then one formal exhibition game for the media. I played a game myself with the robot, then Will had one last go at it.
The final record was a 4-0 sweep for humanity, but more importantly, Will and I found the experience so fascinating we would have kept playing all day if we had had the time.
Will opened the main game with the appropriate 8D WORDY; IVS replied with WALRUS down from the W, leaving Will open to bingo TRAVAILS. He then had a series of tricky decisions to make, thanks to the fact that the robot required that all plays (except the first) have one main word that included all of the played tiles together with at least one previously played tile.
Think about that for a minute. No laying down a natural seven-letter bingo across a hook, and leaving a word hanging short of the triple lane was perfectly safe. Also, a lot of the tiles (actually cubes, to make them easier to grasp) were visible, so you could spend a lot of time trying to anticipate and influence the sequence in which they would go into play.
It took me a third of a game to figure out what was going on; Will grasped it much more quickly, despite being distracted by reporters asking him questions while he was playing.
In the middle of the game, the robot made a beautiful play, extending Will's O12 WORM to O7 ANGLEWORM. Will got back at it a couple of turns later though, by tricking it into extending his L4 FISH to L1 ICEFISH to let him play 1K PIEZO: a new type of fishing play!
That game ended up going 364-309 to Will, and the live video stream is archived here. Enjoy the show!