By Santiago J. Arnaiz
IBM made history on Tuesday evening hosting the first ever public debate between man and machine.
Previously debuted in a small, closed-door event in June 2018, Project Debater stepped onto the public stage for the first time in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center to take on Harish Natarajan, world-class debate champion and head of economic risk at AKE International. Each contender had only 15 minutes to prepare their arguments on whether or not pre-schooling should be subsidized — with Project Debater in the affirmative, and Mr. Natarajan opposing.
Project Debater is the first AI system designed 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.
Moderated by John Donvan, the debate followed the Intelligence Squared format of three rounds preceded and followed by audience polls. Whichever debater changed the most minds by the end of the program won.
“Greetings, Harish,” Project Debater said, opening the evening’s debate in her charming, but unmistakably synthesized voice. “I have heard you hold the world record in debate competition wins against humans. But I suspect you have never debated against a machine. Welcome to the future.”
After three rounds of debate, Mr. Natarajan came out on top with a conclusive victory. Project Debater, however, won the second poll, with more of the audience feeling the AI better enriched their knowledge on the topic matter.
While the AI may have lost her first public debate with a human, she definitely proved her value as a game-changing resource for humans. If applied, Project Debater could potentially see use cases in advising public policy makers, helping legal teams craft cases and establish jurisprudence, and supplementing boardroom meetings with evidence-based arguments for or against potential decisions.
“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. “I think if you take some of those skills and and add to that a human who could use them in more subtle ways, I think that could be incredibly powerful.”
Within the next few years we could see versions of IBM Project Debater organizing massive amounts of public and private data into clear, easy-to-digest formats for human decision-makers.