First-Ever Public Debate Between Robot And Human Ends In A Draw


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Ted Chin/IBM/Creative West

Robots are already besting us in a bunch of things, from board games to building cars. At least we still have the power of speech though, right?

Uh, possibly not anymore. An artificial intelligence (AI) called Project Debater has just held its own against human counterparts in a debate. Being billed as the first live public debate between human and machine, it took place in a conference room in IBM’s San Francisco office, who also built the machine.


On Monday, it took on the 2016 Israeli debate champion, Noa Ovadia, and another nationally renowned Israeli debater, Dan Zafrir. The first debate was on whether there should be more publicly funded space exploration, and the second on whether we should invest more in telemedicine technologies – the remote diagnosis of patients.

Each debater had to give a four-minute introductory speech, a four-minute rebuttal against their opponent, followed by a two-minute closing statement. The audience – which admittedly included a fair few IBM employees – then voted on who they thought did best.

“In both debates, the audience voted Project Debater to be worse at delivery but better in terms of the amount of information it conveyed,” noted The Guardian. “And despite several robotic slip-ups, the audience voted the AI to be more persuasive (in terms of changing the audience’s position) than its human opponent, Zafrir, in the second debate.”

Project Debater – a black rectangular screen that stands about as tall as a human – is not connected to the Internet, but instead gets its information from hundreds of millions of newspaper and journal articles that are stored in its memory. This allows it to put together an argument on the spot.


“Project Debater moves us a big step closer to one of the great boundaries in AI: mastering language,” Arvind Krishna, director of IBM Research, said in a blog post, noting this was the latest in the IBM family of human-beating AI robots after Deep Blue and IBM Watson.

He noted that while the technology is not complete and still “sometimes makes mistakes”, including getting in a muddle a few times in the debates, it could help in a number of ways such as presenting facts relating to public policies.

“Project Debater could be the ultimate fact-based sounding board without the bias that often comes from humans,” he said.

And to get that, all we need to do is give up on our last advantages over the machines. Your move, future.


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