IBM computer taps AI to successfully debate humans

The rise of the machines is continuing – IBM has unveiled a computer that uses artificial intelligence to take on humans in a debate.

The “Project Debater,” system is a 5-foot-tall machine shaped like a monolith with TV screens on its sides and a female voice. The computer, which is the result of a five-year project, processes speech and is equipped with human-like thought and rationality.

In its first public demonstration on Monday IBM pitted its system against two professional Israeli debaters: Noa Ovadia and Dan Zafrir. Debate topics at the San Francisco demo included space exploration and telemedicine.

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In the first debate, an argument for and against subsidized space exploration, Project Debater took on Ovadia, the 2016 Israeli national debate.

The computer created and delivered its opening argument by pulling in information from its vast internal database of myriad resources such as newspapers, journals and other sources. Subsequently, it listened to its human opponent’s counterargument and spent four minutes rebutting it.

“Subsidizing space exploration is like investing in really good tires,” argued the computer. “Such research would enrich the human mind, inspire young people and be a very sound investment,” it said, making it more important even than good roads, schools or health care.

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After closing arguments from both sides, a snap poll showed that a majority of audience members thought Project Debater enriched their knowledge more than its human counterpart, according to Arvind Krishna, Director, IBM Research.

In a second debate, this time against Zafrir, the computer debated the future of telemedicine.

“IBM researchers are exploring the boundaries of AI by teaching computers to create engaging and better-informed points of view. The goal is to build a system that helps people make evidence-based decisions when the answers aren’t black-and-white,” according to IBM.

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“It’s important to note that the debate topic is not known in advance, and Project Debater is not pre-trained on any specific topic,” it explained.

The idea for creating “Project Debater” came after IBM’s Watson supercomputer beat two human quizmasters on a “Jeopardy” challenge in 2011.

IBM believes the advent of “Project Debater” is groundbreaking because of its ability to tackle a deeper level of human thought and analysis, a feat that has yet to be tackled within the sphere of artificial intelligence.

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“If you think of the rules of debate, they’re far more open-ended than the rules of a board game,” said Ranit Aharonov, who manages the debater project.

Some of the pros of “Project Debater” include its ability to collect data and create detailed supporting evidence at a faster rate than humans. In addition, it is adept at recognizing the most significant details of an argument. On the other hand, it lacks dexterity in verbal expression. Some of its expressions just sound awkward and unnatural.

“Humans tend to be better at using more expressive language, more original language,” said Dario Gil, IBM’s vice president of AI research. “They bring in their own personal experience as a way to illustrate the point. The machine doesn’t live in the real world or have a life that it’s able to tap into.”

As of now, there are no immediate plans to turn Project Debater into a commercial product but Gil said it could be useful in helping lawyers or other human workers make informed decisions.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.