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Denso's shogi-playing robot to match wits with masters

TOKYO -- A shogi (Japanese chess)-playing robot developed by auto parts maker Denso will make its debut in this year's shogi master-versus-machine series.

     The third installment in the Denou-sen series will kick off March 15. The event is a team competition pitting five professional shogi players against five computer programs. Denso, which also makes industrial robots, has developed a shogi-playing robotic arm, dubbed Denoutekun, which will compete against the human masters in the five-match series.

 Hardware versus 'wetware'

Shogi is played on a board with nine spaces to a side. Players start with 20 pieces of eight different types. The shogi masters' mechanical nemesis can set up and move the pieces precisely on any one of the board's 81 spaces.

Denso's shogi-playing robot, Denoutekun, will take on some of the world's best human players in this year's Denou-sen tournament.

     The machine is based on an industrial-use, vertical articulated robot sold by Denso subsidiary Denso Wave. It uses a suction cup to pick up and move the pieces, guided by its software brain. In the previous two tournaments, a human stand-in acted as the hand of a shogi-playing computer.

     Employing a robotic arm will make the event a fully human-versus-computer competition, with the robot player "thinking" and moving pieces on its own. The battle royal will be joined, with a team of Denso Wave engineers and computer programmers matching wits -- and nerves -- with people who have devoted their professional lives to the ancient game.

Soft touch

"It was a big challenge for us to develop, in a short time, a robot that can mimic what a human can do easily with one hand," said Yosuke Sawada, leader of the Denso Wave team.

     Industrial robots typically handle precisely machined resin and metal parts, but the shogi robot has to grab and move wooden shogi pieces accurately. The challenge is made more difficult by the varying size of the pieces. There is also variety in the shapes carved onto the wooden pieces, and the shogi robot must be able to adapt to the moves of its human opponents and the differing shapes of the boards.

     That's not all. The shogi master-versus-machine match series is not taking place in the controlled environment of an industrial plant; the robot must be able to operate safely in close proximity to the person sitting across the table.

Games robots play

The five matches are being held in different locations, including Odawara Castle in Kanagawa Prefecture, Tokyo's Ariake Coliseum and Ryogoku Kokugikan. This means the robot must be fairly portable.

     The Denso Wave team, led by Sawada, took only about one month to overcome all these challenges.

     The Japan Shogi Association and Dwango, operator of the Niconico Douga video-sharing site, are co-sponsoring the series. When the sponsors sounded out Denso on participating late last year, the company was reluctant at first. It would have a limited time to develop the machine, and Denso feared its reputation would suffer if something went wrong with a high-profile event.

     But the company eventually decided to take part after people inside and outside the company got behind the idea. Apparently the auto parts maker has quite a few shogi fans, and undoubtedly more who just love a challenge. The Denso Wave team of about 10 people, including some from a business partner, began working on the robot in February.

     Compressed-air technology was used to develop the suction-cup-bearing robotic arm. A camera with image-recognition capability mounted on the tip of the arm allows the machine to move the pieces to an accuracy of 1mm.

     An invisible electronic "safety fence" stands between the device and the human player, stopping the robot's movements automatically if the arm gets too close. The robotic arm is compact, portable and can be installed on the body of the machine easily.

     Although the event may seem like fun and games, developing the shogi robot has provided plenty of food for thought to the Denso Wave team as it looks for ways to grow its business.

     "The hidden theme of the Denou-sen series is how human beings should deal with ever-evolving computers in the future," said Dwango Chairman Nobuo Kawakami.

     One might expect the standard-bearer for human shogi players to feel threatened by Denso's clever robot. Not so. Koji Tanigawa, chairman of the Japan Shogi Association, said: "I hope research and development of shogi software programs will lead to the development of artificial intelligence."

     The presence of the Denso robot will add to the excitement of the event. With only a few days to go before the opening of the Denou-sen, Denso Wave's Sawada is ready for action.

     "When I read one of (former Japan Shogi Association Chairman) Kunio Yonenaga's books titled "Ware Yaburetari" (I was defeated), I fully realized how serious the professional shogi players are when they compete in the Denou-sen. I hope the robotic arm will move in a manner that shows our respect for professional shogi players," he said.

 

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