Played by humans, chess is a game of strategic thinking, calm concentration and patient intellectual endeavour. Violence does not usually come into it. The same, it seems, cannot always be said of machines.
Last week, according to Russian media outlets, a chess-playing robot, apparently unsettled by the quick responses of a seven-year-old boy, unceremoniously grabbed and broke his finger during a match at the Moscow Open.
“The robot broke the child’s finger,” Sergey Lazarev, president of the Moscow Chess Federation, told the TASS news agency after the incident, adding that the machine had played many previous exhibitions without upset. “This is of course bad.”
Sergey Smagin, vice-president of the Russian Chess Federation, told Baza the robot appeared to pounce after it took one of the boy’s pieces. Rather than waiting for the machine to complete its move, the boy opted for a quick riposte, he said.
“There are certain safety rules and the child, apparently, violated them. When he made his move, he did not realise he first had to wait,” Smagin said. “This is an extremely rare case, the first I can recall,” he added.
Lazarev had a different account, saying the child had “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”. Either way, he said, the robot’s suppliers were “going to have to think again”.
Baza named the boy as Christopher and said he was one of the 30 best chess players in the Russian capital in the under-nines category. “People rushed to help and pulled out the finger of the young player, but the fracture could not be avoided,” it said.
Lazarev told Tass that Christopher, whose finger was put in a plaster cast, did not seem overly traumatised by the attack. “The child played the very next day, finished the tournament, and volunteers helped to record the moves,” he said.
His parents, however, have reportedly contacted the public prosecutor’s office. “We will communicate, figure it out and try to help in any way we can,” he said. Smagin told RIA Novosti the incident was “a coincidence” and the robot was “absolutely safe”.
The machine, which can play multiple matches at a time and had reportedly already played three on the day it encountered Christopher, was “unique”, he said. “It has performed at many opens. Apparently, children need to be warned. It happens.”
A Russian grandmaster, Sergey Karjakin, said the incident was no doubt due to “some kind of software error or something”, adding: “This has never happened before. There are such accidents. I wish the boy good health.”
Christopher may have been lucky. 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.
According to one 2015 study, one person is killed each year by an industrial robot in the US alone. Indeed, according to the US occupational safety administration, most occupational accidents since 2000 involving robots have been fatalities.
Robert Williams, widely considered the first, was crushed to death by the arm of a one-tonne robot on Ford’s Michigan production line in 1979. In 2015, a robot killed a 22-year old contractor at one of Volkswagen’s German plants, grabbing him and crushing him against a metal plate.
Robots used in medical surgery were also held responsible for the deaths of 144 people between 2008 and 2013. More recently, Elaine Herzberg was killed by an Uber autonomous car that hit the 49-year-old at 40mph as she was crossing the road in Tempe, Arizona in 2018.
Generally, however, human error – or a lack of human understanding of robotic processes – is the most frequent cause. It pays to be careful around robots, even if they are only playing chess.