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Chess robot breaks seven-year-old’s finger during tournament in Russia

Chess robot breaks seven-year-old’s finger during tournament in Russia


‘The robot broke the child’s finger. This, of course, is bad’

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2020 China International Industry Fair
A stock photo of a chess-playing robot in Shanghai — unconnected to this incident.
Photo by Gao Yuwen/VCG via Getty Images

A chess robot broke the finger of a seven-year-old boy playing in a tournament in Russia, according to reports from local news outlets (seen via The Guardian).

The incident happened last week at the Moscow Chess Open, where the robot was hired to play competitors. Video of the incident (below) shows the machine is a standard industrial robot arm customized to move pieces on three chess boards simultaneously.

“The robot broke the child’s finger. This, of course, is bad,” Sergey Lazarev, President of the Moscow Chess Federation, told Russian news agency TASS (translation via Google Translate).

Said Lazarev: “The robot was rented by us, it has been exhibited in many places, for a long time, with specialists. Apparently, the operators overlooked it. The child made a move, and after that we need to give time for the robot to answer, but the boy hurried, the robot grabbed him. We have nothing to do with the robot.”

It’s not clear what explanation —if any — the robot’s creators have offered for this accident, but such incidents are not unusual in scenarios where robot engineers have failed to properly consider safety protocol around humans.

In most industrial environments, robots are essentially unseeing operators. They move along set paths at set times, and often lack sensors to recognize or respond to nearby humans. In other words: if you move into their path, they won’t know you’re there.

Many robots operate blind — this one shouldn’t have

This sort of blind collision has been the cause of many robot fatalities. The first such incident is generally thought to have taken place in 1979, when Ford factory worker Robert Williams was crushed by a robot arm. The US Department of Labor logs these deaths, which tally roughly one fatality a year, though the statistics vary based on different companies’ definition of a robot. For example, is a conveyer belt a robot? Or a molding machine?

In the case of the chess robot, it seems the device was designed only to identify and move chess pieces — not respond to the appearance of a human hand in its playing area.

“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,” Sergey Smagin, vice-president of the Russian Chess Federation, told a Telegram-based news channel Baza, according to The Guardian.

However, it’s more accurate to say that the robot’s designers violated safety rules by creating a machine that could inadvertently hurt humans. A number of basic features could have prevented the accident — from placing a camera above the chess board that disables the robot’s movement if foreign objects appear in frame, to limiting the force that can be output by the robot’s arm.

Although footage of the incident is distressing, according to Lazarev the child was soon recovered enough to continue to play. “The child played the very next day, finished the tournament in a cast, and the volunteers helped to record the moves,” Lazarev told TASS. “The robot operators, apparently, will have to think about strengthening protection so that this situation does not happen again.”