IBM's Project Debater unable to out-debate human

Harish Natarajan

Before this competition, Project Debater performed live in June previous year in front of the press.

The pair, moderated by Intelligence Squared host John Donvan, delivered arguments for and against the resolution "We should subsidize preschool". While Natarajan was technically declared the victor of the debate, IBM's Research Blog notes that 58 percent of the audience thought "Project Debater better enriched their knowledge about the topic at hand, compared to Harish's 20 percent". The proportion of people in agreement with the statement dropped to 62 percent after the debate, which made Natarajan the victor. In the battle of arguments, a human has defeated IBM's AI-based debating system.

Aharonov says: "The vision around Project Debater is how do we develop the technology".

To access the competition, the audience was asked to vote for one side or the other at the start of the debate, and again at the end of it.

"The goal of this demonstration and of building this technology was to set [a goal] that's far away and that enabled us to develop technologies to find relevant information within a mass of text, organise it and bring it to a position that's digestible to humans, in order to drive better decision making more quickly".

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Though it lost the debate, the AI did manage to come ahead in terms of "enriching the knowledge" of the audience, with a majority of those present stating that they felt they learned more from the machine. Natarajan added that the A.I.'s arguments were "nicely phrased and contextualized", and that the A.I. could be "quite powerful" when used by humans. It saved its best counter arguments for its closing statement.

"It needs to pinpoint these little pieces of text that are relevant to the topic, that are argumentative in nature, that hopefully support our side of the debate, and then somehow glue them together into a meaningful argument, which is very hard for a machine to do". 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.

Project Debater is the first AI system created to debate humans on complex topics using a combination of cutting-edge capabilities, including: data-driven speechwriting and delivery, listening comprehension, and modeling human dilemmas.

IBM Research director Dario Gil concurred: "We believe there is great potential in having artificial intelligence that can understand us [and] be more transparent and explainable". He said Debater was "going to a territory that's extremely human".

The debate with Harish Natarajan was not Project Debater's first test against humans.

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