IBM AI Learns the Art of Debate

IBM's Project Debater AI engages in live, public debates with people on numerous complex topics held at IBM’s Watson West site in San Francisco. (source: IBM)

IBM's Project Debater AI engages in live, public debates with people on numerous complex topics held at IBM’s Watson West site in San Francisco. (source: IBM)

June 21, 2018 | Source: IBM,, 18 June 2018

How informed is your point-of-view?  IBM is augmenting human-decision making through Project Debater research and advances in the ability of artificial intelligent (AI) systems to master natural language, comprehend complex arguments, and model human dilemmas.

Today, an artificial intelligence (AI) system engaged in the first ever live, public debates with humans. At an event held at IBM’s Watson West site in San Francisco, a champion debater and IBM’s AI system, Project Debater, began by preparing arguments for and against the statement: “We should subsidize space exploration.” Both sides then delivered a four-minute opening statement, a four-minute rebuttal, and a two-minute summary.

Project Debater made an opening argument that supported the statement with facts, including the points that space exploration benefits human kind because it can help advance scientific discoveries and it inspires young people to think beyond themselves. Noa Ovadia, the 2016 Israeli national debate champion, opposed the statement, arguing that there are better applications for government subsidies, including subsidies for scientific research here on Earth. After listening to Noa’s argument, Project Debater delivered a rebuttal speech, countering with the view that potential technological and economic benefits from space exploration outweigh other government spending. Following closing summaries from both sides, a snap poll showed that a majority of audience members thought Project Debater enriched their knowledge more than its human counterpart.

Just think about that for a moment. An AI system engaged with an expert human debater, listened to her argument, and responded convincingly with its own, unscripted reasoning to persuade an audience to consider its position on a controversial topic. Later, we held a second debate between the system and another Israeli debate expert, Dan Zafrir, that featured opposing arguments on the statement: “We should increase the use of telemedicine.”

Project Debater moves us a big step closer to one of the great boundaries in AI: mastering language. It is the latest in a long line of major AI innovations at IBM. Project Debater reflects the mission of IBM Research today to develop broad AI that learns across different disciplines to augment human intelligence. AI assistants have become highly useful to us through their ability to conduct sophisticated keyword searches and respond to simple questions or requests (such as “how many ounces in a liter?” or “call Mom”). Project Debater explores new territory: it absorbs massive and diverse sets of information and perspectives to help people build persuasive arguments and make well-informed decisions.

Building the system was a remarkably difficult and complex challenge.  Over the past six years, a global IBM Research team led by our Haifa, Israel lab endowed Project Debater with three capabilities, each breaking new ground in AI: first, data-driven speech writing and delivery; second, listening comprehension that can identify key claims hidden within long continuous spoken language; and third, modelling human dilemmas in a unique knowledge graph to enable principled arguments

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