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IBM’s AI takes on world-class debater in argument about preschool

IBM’s Project Debater, an AI system that can engage in live debate with humans, today faced off with 2016 World Debating Championships Grand Finalist and 2012 European Debate Champion Harish Natarajan. The debate was about preschool subsidies, with Project Debater arguing in favor and Natarajan arguing in the opposition.

More than 50 percent of the audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco said in a poll taken after the debate that Debater enriched their knowledge on the subject, while about 20 percent said the same of Natarajan’s argument.

The two appeared to fight to a draw when it came to changing minds in the audience: Following the debate, 17 percent of the audience against the motion changed their minds, and 17 percent of the audience in favor of preschool subsidies changed their mind.

The competition took place ahead of IBM Think, a conference being held this week in San Francisco.

Natarajan and Debater were informed of the debate topic 15 minutes in advance. Participant was given a total of 8 minutes each to share an opening argument, a rebuttal, and a two-minute closing argument.

Debater argued in favor of preschool because, among other things, it can benefit the impoverished, make for better students, and can reduce crime rates, along the way citing a broad range of sources including National Institute for Early Education Research and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doing what’s considered morally right by humans were core parts of Debater’s opening argument and rebuttal.

“Giving opportunities to the less fortunate is a moral obligation of every human being,” Debater said, after questioning whether her (Debater is a female, its creators said) opponent would rather the poor on his doorstep.

“It’s basic human decency,” Debater said in reference to welfare, who called it the same as extending a helping hand to someone who fell.

For his part, Natarajan argued that preschool subsidies could be spent better elsewhere in order to help the most disadvantaged and such subsidies are principally aimed at a political handout for the middle class.

Debater and Natarajan had never spoken prior to the debate. By comparison, when Project Debater made its public debut in a series of arguments last summer, Natarajan had no prior experience interacting with the AI system.

Debater is trained by billions of sentences from newspaper articles, Wikipedia topic pages, and other sources of knowledge. Watson conversational AI was used to convert speech-to-text as part of the process.

Project Debater’s bout today is the most recent man vs. machine competition driven by artificial intelligence.

Following the creation of AlphaGo and defeat of Go champion Lee Sadol, DeepMind continues to make systems that beat human professionals in games like Starcraft II.

Last week, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence rolled out AllenAI, a system made to collaborate with a human in a game like Pictionary. The object of this system is to learn how to cooperate with a human, but future tests of its effectiveness will be the Turing Test to see if people can discern whether they’re playing with a human or machine.

Last fall, autonomous drone systems joined the Drone Racing League, and AWS introduced an autonomous vehicle racing competition for its DeepRacer car last fall.

The debate was moderated by John Donovan, host of Intelligence Squared.

Intelligence Squared has received updates on Project Debater for years, IBM Research director Dario Gil told VentureBeat in a phone interview.

Like the show, audience members were asked to vote both on who won the debate, and which side swayed your opinion.

Intelligence Squared has played a role in Project Debater because win or loss is not the central point as much as it is about helping people with valuable dialogue that helps you evolve the way you think.

“It’s not like ‘Oh now Project Debater is the only way that you’re going to debate.’ It has its pluses and minuses, the machines that debate, humans do as well, but the question is because they argue differently, they use facts differently, is the resulting experience, enriching to us? Does it add something to the conversation?”

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