Human champion beats IBM's AI in debating challenge

Harish Natarajan

Artificial intelligence machines have beat the world's greatest Go, Chess, Jeopardy, and StarCraft II (usually) players, but they're still not quite on the same level as one of the world's top debaters-Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist in 2016's World Debating Championships and the 2012 European Debate victor.

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 system is capable of pinpointing relevant information within a massive collection - about 10 billion sentences are in the memory of this system", Project Debater principal investigator Noam Slonim said. It is not connected to the internet and can not crib arguments from sites like Wikipedia.

Held at the Yerba Buena center, in San Francisco, the debate was organized by Intelligence Squared US, a non-profit specializing in hosting debates.

The topic of debate was about whether the United States government should subsidize preschools, with Project Debater arguing in favor and Natarajan arguing against.

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While IBM's Project Debater argued for the topic, Natarajan countered it. The debate followed the traditional format: four minutes of opening speech for each, four minutes for rebuttal and two minutes of closing speech. One, AI machines can engage humans in a debate on complex topics. It argued, among other things, that subsidized preschool can help break the poverty cycle.

"There will still be individuals who will be priced out because of the realities of the market", he said. Natarajan addressed specific parts of Project Debater's arguments and rebuffed them - such as saying it's unrealistic to expect a government has an unrestricted budget to put toward helpful programs.

Project Debater's rebuttal, while eloquently phrased, seemed more like a continuation of its initial argument than a true rebuttal of Natarajan's points. It then tries to capture "the gist" of the opponent's arguments before plumbing the depths of its memory for counterpoints.

"What really struck me was the potential value of Project Debater when synthesized with a human being, in that the amount of knowledge she is able to grasp, but more than that, the ability to contextualize that knowledge by saying 'this information tells us this, '" said Mr. Natarajan. Combining its skills with those of a human, he said, "could be incredibly powerful".

It was interesting to see that from the 79 percent audience that voted for subsidisation of pre-schools before the debate started, 17 percent of them changed their opinion after the contest was over.

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