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IBM’s Project Debater unable to out-debate human

13 Feb 2019

“I have heard you hold the world record in debate competition wins against humans, but I suspect you have never debated a machine. Welcome to the future.”

This was the greeting from one of IBM's latest AI innovations, 'Project Debater',  to one of the world's most decorated (and human) debaters, Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist in 2016's World Debating Championships

The two faced off in a live performance in California on Monday ahead of IBM Think, a conference being held in San Francisco this week.

And while the result was close, the human managed to pip the machine in this instance.

Both parties were informed of the debate topic just 15 minutes in advance, with a total of eight minutes to present an opening argument, a rebuttal, and a two-minute closing argument.

The topic? ‘Preschools should be subsidised’, and Project Debater was asked to debate in favour of the statement. The tall black box with a female voice then scrutinised a database of hundreds of millions of newspaper and magazine articles before writing and presenting an argument based on her findings - all within 15 minutes.

She was then able to absorb Natarajan’s argument to formulate her own rebuttal. To keep things even, Project Debater wasn’t connected to the internet and was unable to harbour arguments from sites like Wikipedia.

The result was decided by the audience, as 79 percent agreed with the statement before the debate, while 13 percent disagreed and eight percent were unsure. The proportion of people in agreement with the statement dropped to 62 percent after the debate, which made Natarajan the winner.

Project Debater is just the latest in a host of AI innovations that have usurped humans. In 1996, IBM produced a computer system that was able to beat a chess grandmaster for the first time, and then in 2011 its Watson AI system was able to defeat two record winning Jeopardy! contestants - and that’s just IBM’s achievements, as companies like Google’s parent company Alphabet have proved AI can master the ancient game of Go.

It would appear that debating, which demands creativity and emotional elocution, is a step too far for AI at the moment, but while man has won this battle, it would be fair to think that it’s only a matter of time before AI gets the upper hand.

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