Can AI beat a human in a debate? IBM wants to find out

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On Monday, Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist in 2016’s World Debating Championships, is facing off against IBM’s Project Debater — a computer touted by the company as the first artificial-intelligence system built to meaningfully debate humans.

Project Debater, which has been in the works since 2012, is designed to come up with coherent, convincing speeches of its own, while taking in the arguments of a human opponent and creating its own rebuttal. It even comes up with its own closing argument. To generate its arguments, Project Debater uses newspaper and magazine articles from its own database. It is not connected to the internet and cannot crib arguments from sites like Wikipedia.

Monday’s debate, which was organized by nonprofit debate-hosting company Intelligence Squared US, is being held in front of an audience in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The topic of the debate — whether or not preschool should be subsidized — wasn’t revealed to the AI system or Natarajan until right before they took to the stage. Project Debater will be arguing for the resolution.

It will follow traditional debate style. Each side does a 4-minute opening speech, then they each get a 4-minute rebuttal of the other party. At the end, they do a 2-minute closing talk.

“Greetings, Harish,” Project Debater began, speaking in a mainly monotonous, female voice. It argued, among other things, that subsidized preschool can help break the poverty cycle. It spoke in complete sentences, and drew from a range of studies (including by the US Centers for Disease Control).

Natarajan followed, arguing against the resolution, saying subsidies would consume resources that middle-class families would otherwise use for other things. He also argued that subsidizing preschool doesn’t mean that all children will be able to attend.

“There will still be individuals who will be priced out because of the realities of the market,” he said.

The rebuttal segment of the debate was where some of the big differences between human and computer (beyond looks and vocal capabilities) were laid bare. Natarajan addressed specific parts of Project Debater’s arguments and rebuffed them — such as by saying it’s unrealistic to expect a government has an unrestricted budget to put toward all kinds of helpful programs.

Project Debater’s rebuttal, however, while eloquently phrased, seemed more like a continuation of its initial argument than a true rebuttal of Natarajan’s points.

Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist in 2016's World Debating Championships, faced IBM's Project Debater — a computer touted by the company as the first artificial-intelligence system built to meaningfully debate humans.
Project Debater shows how AI systems have become increasingly flexible in recent years. The AI we’re used to seeing — like digital assistants built into smart speakers — can only be used in very narrow ways, such as answering specific questions. But IBM’s (IBM) system shows how the technology may also be used to explore problems that don’t necessarily have a single answer. This might help people find new ways to work with computers, and to use AI to help us come up with more solutions to problems.

“It’s really pushing the boundaries [of the] kinds of AI systems that are more interactive with us and can understand us better,” IBM Research director Dario Gil told CNN Business on Monday.

This is a developing story…

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