Debating with a machine

IBM shows off an artificial intelligence that can debate a human – and do pretty well

Can it be useful to debate with a machine?

After Sophia became a Saudi citizen in 2017, we now find IBM’s computers engaging in debate (against debating champions) and nearly winning. What is more, the ‘artificially intelligent’ debater has no human face. It is an obelisk -and this project seems to be an Israeli one! The Jerusalem Post writes Quote

[…] IBM’s new developed-in-Israel artificial intelligence system engaged in the first ever live public debate this week (article dated June 22, 2018) against two master Israeli debating champions. Who won? Depends who you ask.

At the media gathering in San Francisco on Monday afternoon, “Project Debater,” launched in IBM’s Haifa headquarters six years ago, more than held its own against seasoned human debaters.

In one face-off, Project Debater made the case in favor of government subsidizing space exploration, facing Israel’s 2016 national debate champion, Noa Ovadia, who took the opposing position.

Ovadia was judged the winner by the crowd of journalists in “delivering” the argument. While the computer’s attempts at humor didn’t measure up to the personality of a human, IBM outscored Ovadia handily on the question of “knowledge enrichment.”

IBM’s computer fared better in a second debate, persuading the crowd that telemedicine is worth pursuing, against another Israeli debating champ, Dan Zafrir. Again, the human prevailed on delivery, but this time only by a slim margin, and the computer was a big winner in knowledge enrichment. And at least nine audience members changed their minds on the topic to the point of view of the computer.

That was good enough to make the exhibition a success in the eyes of Noam Slonim, a senior technical staff member at IBM’s research center in Haifa and the person who originally proposed the Project Debater idea in 2011. […] End quote.

In two other reports the Israeli origin is concealed yet the event raised these comments: Quote:

[…] Once an AI is capable of persuasive arguments, it can be applied as a tool to aid human decision-making.

“We believe there’s massive potential for good in artificial intelligence that can understand us humans,” said Arvind Krishna, director of IBM Research.

One example of this might be corporate boardroom decisions, where there are lots of conflicting points of view. The AI system could, without emotion, listen to the conversation, take all of the evidence and arguments into account and challenge the reasoning of humans where necessary.

“This can increase the level of evidence-based decision-making,” said Reed, adding that the same system could be used for intelligence analysis in counter-terrorism, for example identifying if a particular individual represents a threat.

In both cases, the machine wouldn’t make the decision but would contribute to the discussion and act as another voice at the table.[…] End quote.

[…] Some of the points it made were pretty facile; some quoted sources, and some were pretty clearly cribbed from articles. Still, it was able to move from the ‘present information’ mode we usually think of when we hear Artificial Intelligence to a ‘make an argument’ mode. What impressed me more was that it attempted to directly argue with points that its human opponents made, in nearly real time. (The system needed a couple of  minutes to analyze the human’s four-minute speech before it could respond.)

It frankly made me feel a little unsettled, but not because of the usual worries like ‘robots are going to become self-aware and take over’ or ‘Artificial Intelligence is coming for our jobs.’ It was something subtler and harder to put my finger on. For maybe the first time, I felt like an A.I was trying to dissemble. I didn’t see it lie, nor do I think it tried to trick us, but it did engage in a debating tactic that, if you saw a human try it, would make you trust that human a little bit less […]

Even so, I am tempted to trust the Debater more than some politicians. The GIGO (Garbage IN Garbage OUT) principle still applies. The inputs to the Debater are important to these debates. The “system has ‘several hundred million articles’ that it assumes are accurate in its data banks”.

A common metaphor to describe social building is to ‘stand on the shoulders of ancestors.’ If this metaphor is good enough to explain things like ‘white privilege’ then it may also explain why a society occasionally falters like a human pyramid collapsing from a lack of cooperation. Signs are evident everywhere and may have always been there except that these days we have avalanches of data to draw on. This may come about despite our dedication to record, analyse, and learn from experience. Why? It may be that a few single people can know it all. Even groups, pooling their efforts, may not get it right.

Looking at the computing tools now available we may actually realise the dreams behind much science fiction in that a further stable tier can be added: ‘on the shoulders’ of our successful builders of society. Are we forever condemned to install scores of working groups after every election?

I wonder if we are soon to see black boxes replacing politicians ‘on the list’?


Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.

A guest post submitted to Whaleoil and edited by Whaleoil staff.

Guest Post content does not necessarily reflect the views of the site or its editor. Guest Post content is offered for discussion and for alternative points of view.

Listen to this post:
29%