MIT Student Creates Robot That Plays ‘Connect Four’

The only problem is that it's smarter than most people and always wins.

For Patrick McCabe, the fact that a Connect Four-playing robot he built for a final project at MIT can beat its creator carries both the weight of embarrassment as well as a certain sense of accomplishment.

“It’s kind of a magical thing with computer science and technology, being able to leverage that to actually make something smarter than you are,” said McCabe.

The robot, which has sensors that read and memorize people’s moves as the classic game is played, was built by McCabe, who will be a junior next year, as part of his final project for his Microcomputer Project Laboratory course.

McCabe said the project took around five weeks to complete before he had to present it to his professor to prove that it worked. The class was given a generous amount of wiggle room when approaching the task of building something based off of course topics learned throughout the spring semester, but was instructed to use two specific items for their projects, including a micro-controller.

With nearly a decade worth of skills in building robots and a general interest in interactive gameplay, McCabe decided he wanted to create a machine that could outsmart people.

“I like projects other people interact with. It kind of makes the months of work you put into it worth something to see someone else playing with it, and see the looks on their faces when they lose or win. It’s pretty entertaining,” he said. “At first they think it’s really cool, then they get really sad when they realize they are losing to a robot.”

Built with a chip dispenser, a linear actuator, and 3D printed and laser cut pieces, McCabe’s Connect Four-playing robot is so good that McCabe has only beat it a handful of times. He said it’s able to take on challengers with ease by “thinking further” than humans do when picking a move, based on the programming that went into creating the robot.

“It thinks more rationally than we do, and uses some basic math to try and compute what someone’s score is. It searches really deep, which people find difficult to do,” he said.

Although a video of McCabe’s project was posted in late June, it was picked up by national tech blogs just this week, surprising even the robot’s creator.

“A lot more people have seen it than I thought they would,” he said. “Some people have said, ‘I need this, this is really awesome.’”

While he doesn’t have plans to put them out to market, McCabe said with all of the attention he wants to make some additional tweaks to the robot that were not part of the final project, and possibly bring it out to a public space to let strangers play against it.