rage against the machines

Who Will Save Us From the Russian Chess Robots?

I can’t let you make that move, Dave. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

There is perhaps no game that computers have more experience playing against human opponents than chess. The first rudimentary programs capable of playing a whole chess match were developed in the late 1950s; four decades later, in 1997, IBM’s famous Deep Blue supercomputer finally got good enough at the game to defeat World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov — a long-sought benchmark victory for artificial intelligence (and its human programmers). Now, a quarter-century of technological progress later, a robot in Russia has finally struck the first physical blow in this ongoing rivalry.

Last week at the Moscow Open, a chess-playing robot grabbed and broke the finger of a 7-year-old boy it was matched up against. According to video footage of the incident, the robot — a gripper-equipped robotic arm that appeared to be playing three children at once — had just finished a move taking one of the kid’s pieces. As the boy quickly went to make his countermove, the robot suddenly reached forward and grabbed his finger and didn’t let go. Several adults then rushed in and freed the boy from the robot’s grasp.

“The robot broke the child’s finger. This is of course bad,” Moscow Chess Federation president Sergey Lazarev told Russia’s TASS state news outlet. He said the kid, who is one of Moscow’s top 30 players under age 9, got his finger put in a plaster cast and was able to resume the tournament the following day.

Federation officials also seemed to downplay the incident, as well as sort of blame the 7-year-old. The kid “made a move, and after that we need to give time for the robot to answer, but the boy hurried and the robot grabbed him,” explained Lazarev, who stressed that the federation didn’t own the robot. Another official, Moscow Chess Federation vice-president Sergey Smagin, told RIA Novosti that “there are certain safety rules and the child, apparently, violated them. When he made his move, he did not realize he first had to wait.” Smagin insisted the robot was “absolutely safe,” the altercation was an “extremely rare case,” and that there had been no talk of banning the robot from future tournaments. He added that the robot is a 15-year veteran of the sport that has played in many opens. “Apparently, it is necessary to additionally warn children. It is extremely strange that this happened, but it happened, it happens.”

As the Guardian darkly noted on Sunday, the kid was lucky he escaped more serious injury, as there have been multiple accidental deaths around the world involving industrial robots:

While robots are becoming more and more sophisticated, with the most modern models capable not just of interacting but actively cooperating with humans, most simply repeat the same basic actions — grab, move, put down — and neither know nor care if people get in the way.

But until last week there had been no other reported incidents of inadvertent or deliberate violence committed by chess-playing robots. Still, as countless works of science fiction have warned us, anyone planning to take on a robot capable of breaking human bones might want to be extra careful they don’t piss it off.

Who Will Save Us From the Russian Chess Robots?