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cmurobotics / youtube
cmurobotics / youtube

Playing Scrabble with Victor, the Gamebot

cmurobotics / youtube
cmurobotics / youtube

“I have legs,” Nick says.

“My head alone is twice your worth,” Victor replies. Victor likes to trash talk when he plays Scrabble. My friend Nick does, too. Only Victor is a robot. A trash-talking, Scrabble-playing robot.

Victor will play Scrabble with anyone who visits the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Reid Simmons, a research professor at CMU’s Robotic Institute, came up with the idea for the gamebot five years ago. The goal is to come up with a robot that converses with humans naturally; Victor's creators hope the gamebot will help them do that. “We’re looking at how people interact and how changes in the way that Victor interacts change the way that people interact," Simmons says. "Does emotion [or] a move play a role in how people interact? Will they notice if Victor is happy or angry and will that affect the way that people interact?”

Playing Scrabble with a Robot

I am not a good Scrabble player. When the robot’s handler, Greg Armstrong, senior research technician at Carnegie Mellon University, directs me to taunt Victor by saying “I’m going to win,” the robot replies with “What scores are you looking at?” If he can’t think of a good response, the robot says, “Talk is cheap, silence is expensive.” Most of the robot's witty remarks were written by Michael Chemers, an associate professor of theater arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz. (Chemers also created the backstory for the robot and updates his Facebook page.)

Aside from the biting remarks—which increase in frequency when he is losing—Victor has an encyclopedic memory for the rules and immediately knows whether a word is valid or not. When Nick accidentally plays an incorrect word, Qa, Victor forces Nick to lose his turn—it's a Scrabble rule. But the bot has a bit of a pop culture blind spot: When Nick pulls ahead in the game and tells Victor that “resistance is futile,” the Scrabble-playing robot doesn't understand the Borg reference. Somebody forgot to program Victor with important Star Trek trivia.

When Victor becomes excited, his blockhead swivels and bobs a little, what Armstrong calls a “happy head bounce.” He has no arms or legs, so his head is the primary way he conducts nonverbal communication.

Simmons believes that by understanding how people interact with Victor, researchers will make robots that will better relate to humans. He thinks that robots will one day live with elderly or disabled people and help them live independently. Maybe a patient should be exercising, but isn’t listening to the robot’s instruction; should the robot get angry about it, or issue gentle rebukes? Using a game helps Simmons understand how people respond to robot "emotions."

“I want to emphasize we’re not doing this just to have a robot to play Scrabble," he says. "Scrabble is just the medium to have people come and sit down and interact with a robot for a longer period of time."

One disadvantage is that Victor can’t hear. At the start of the game, Victor tells us that he is deaf. We must type everything to him. This means Victor misses the casual conversation between Nick and me, making our comments to him seem forced (also, he doesn’t know that I told Nick that the humans have to work together against the robots). Simmons says he’s aware of this problem, but found that speech recognition capabilities aren’t advanced enough for Victor to hear.  

“The speech recognition goes down a lot and it becomes a frustrating experience,” he says.

Simmons is keeping logs of the conversations between Scrabble players and Victor to understand how players react to Victor. After working out the kinks with the game, he plans on setting up scientific experiments to see how people act if Victor plays angry all the time or acts happy when he should act frustrated.

“[We want to] see if people notice a difference … if he plays angry when he is ahead and happy when it is behind," Simmons says. "It is very easy to change that and see how it affects how people play.”

In the end, Victor and I both lose to Nick—but we're both within 10 points of him. Until next time, Victor!

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How to Spot the Convincing New Phishing Scam Targeting Netflix Users
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Netflix may send customers the occasional email, but these messages will never ask you to provide them with personal or payment info. You'll want to keep this in mind if you encounter a new phishing scam that The Daily Dot reports is targeting the video streaming service's subscribers in Australia and the UK.

MailGuard, an Australian email security company, was the first to take notice of the fraudulent emails. While similar scams have targeted Netflix users in the past, this current iteration appears to be more convincing than most. At first (and perhaps even second) glance, the messages appear to be legitimate messages from Netflix, with an authentic-looking sender email and the company’s signature red-and-white branding. The fake emails don’t contain telltale signs of a phishing attempt like misspelled words, irregular spacing, or urgent phrasing.

The subject line of the email informs recipients that their credit card info has been declined, and the body requests that customers click on a link to update their card's expiration date and CVV. Clicking leads to a portal where, in addition to the aforementioned details, individuals are prompted to provide their email address and full credit card number. After submitting this valuable info, they’re redirected to Netflix’s homepage.

So far, it’s unclear whether this phishing scheme has widely affected Netflix customers in the U.S., but thousands of people in both Australia and the U.K. have reportedly fallen prey to the effort.

To stay safe from phishing scams—Netflix-related or otherwise—remember to never, ever click on an email link unless you’re 100 percent sure it’s valid. And if you do end up getting duped, use this checklist as a guide to safeguard your compromised data.

[h/t The Daily Dot]

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Weather Watch
Heated Mats Keep Steps Ice-Free in the Winter
Amazon
Amazon

The first snow of the season is always exciting, but the magic can quickly run out when you remember all the hazards that come with icy conditions. Along with heating bills, frosted cars, and other pains, the ground develops a coat of ice that can be dangerous for pedestrians and drivers alike. Outdoor steps become particularly treacherous and many people find themselves clutching their railings for fear of making it to the bottom headfirst. Instead of putting salt down the next time it snows, consider a less messy approach: heated mats that quickly melt the ice away.

The handy devices are made with a thermoplastic material and can melt two inches of snow per hour. They're designed to be left outside, so you can keep them ready to go for the whole winter. The 10-by-30-inch mats fit on most standard steps and come with grips to help prevent slipping. A waterproof connector cable connects to additional mats so up to 15 steps can be covered.

Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a price: You need to buy a 120-volt power unit for them to work, and each mat is sold separately. Running at $60 a mat, the price can add up pretty quickly. Still, if you live in a colder place where it's pretty much always snowing, it might be worth it.

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