Published: Thu, February 14, 2019
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Man vs machine: Human triumphs over IBMs AI debating system

Man vs machine: Human triumphs over IBMs AI debating system

The topic of debate was about whether the U.S. government should subsidize preschools, with Project Debater arguing in favor and Natarajan arguing against. First debuted in a small closed-door event in June 2018, Project Debater will now face its toughest opponent yet in front of its largest-ever audience, with our own John Donvan in the moderator's seat.

At the end, the machine could not out-argue Natarajan but it drove home many points.

Harish Natarajan, a 31-year-old champion debater who holds the world record for most debate competition victories, with the 2016 World Debating Championships and 2012 European Debate among his accolades, argued successfully against the resolution, saying that it does not address the root causes of poverty.

The reason for that is now clear: IBM sees the technology moving beyond debating and firmly into enterprise environments where it could assist people to understand complex problems and find an appropriate answer.

Aharonov says: "The vision around Project Debater is how do we develop the technology".

In brief: While AI has got the better of human experts on several previous occasions, it seems there's at least one area where we mammals are still number one: debating.

"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. Though 60 per cent of the audience stated that Project Debater enriched their knowledge, they were also swayed by Natarajan's line of argument.


The IBM Debater system was trained on 10 billion sentences in hundreds of millions of articles from various prominent newspapers and magazines.

He asserted that a combination of this technology and human skills could be incredibly powerful. It then tries to capture "the gist" of the opponent's arguments before plumbing the depths of its memory for counterpoints.

"It needs to pinpoint these little pieces of text that are relevant to the topic, that are argumentative in nature, that hopefully support our side of the debate, and then somehow glue them together into a meaningful argument, which is very hard for a machine to do".

The debate followed the usual style where both the sides gave four-minute opening speech, four-minute rebuttal and a two-minute closing argument.

"It's really pushing the boundaries [of the] kinds of AI systems that are more interactive with us and can understand us better", IBM Research director Dario Gil said Monday on CNN's First Move. He said Debater was "going to a territory that's extremely human".

Debater began the event by making the audience laugh, acknowledging that Natarajan was a formidable debater but adding: "I suspect you've never debated a machine".

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