Now AI-based machines compete with humans in debate competitions

Alfred Osborne
February 14, 2019

TheNewsGuru (TNG) reports the debate audience handed 31-year-old Natarajan victory over the AI debating system after a 25-minute rapid-fire exchange about pre-school subsidies.

Project Debater debuted in June, participating in its first live public event before a small audience.

The topic of the debate was whether or not preschool should be subsidized. 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".

Project Debater, which has been developed over the last eight years by IBM researchers across the globe, including India, has been created to participate in live debates with human debaters. After hearing both sides present, 62 percent agreed that preschools should be subsidized, while 30 percent disagreed-clinching Natarajan's win. It would be interesting to see how AI-based systems operate in the future.

Despite the setback, IBM should consider this a win: More than half of participants said that Project Debater better enriched their knowledge about the topic, compared to only 20 percent for Natarajan.

"What struck me was the potential value for Debater because of the amount of knowledge it can grasp", he said during the onstage interview afterward.

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"I think if you take some of those skills and add it to a human being who can use it in slightly more subtle ways, I think it could be incredibly powerful", he said. It then tries to capture "the gist" of the opponent's arguments before plumbing the depths of its memory for counterpoints. "But it was able to pinpoint relevant points for the debate".

The Project Debater system opened in support of the resolution, and apparently, "she" only had 15 minutes to prepare for the topic beforehand, just like the record-holding human competitor.

The project can even generate its own arguments and rebuttal, and closing argument by using newspaper and magazine articles from its own database and also taking in the arguments of its human opponent.

Aharonov noted this was a key aspect that set Project Debater apart from other IBM technologies that have previously tackled AI challenges.

Gil noted prior to the debate kicking off that the machine was never going to be ideal.

"Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said in 1973, 'Preschool is the greatest single aid in removing or modifying the inequalities of background, environment, family income or family nationality", Project Debater told the audience during its opening remarks, borrowing from a 1972 speech.

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