Persuasion machines: AI can now debate humans. We still win — for now

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World record-holding debater Harish Natarajan poses with Project Debater, his opponent at Think 2019. Credit: IBM
World record-holding debater Harish Natarajan poses with Project Debater, his opponent at Think 2019. Credit: IBM

Stand aside, Siri and Alexa. An IBM team led by artificial intelligence (A.I.) researcher Noam Slonim has devised a system that does not merely answer questions; it debates the questioners.

In a contest against champion human debaters, Slonim’s Project Debater, which speaks with a female voice, impressed the judges. 

Project Debater was paired with three champion human debaters in parliamentary-style public debates, with both sides offering four-minute opening statements, four-minute rebuttals, and two-minute closing statements. Each side got 15 minutes to prepare once the topic was chosen.

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Slonim and his colleagues report that expert analysts, who read transcripts without knowing which side was human, thought that Project Debater gave a “decent performance” but that the human debaters generally were more persuasive.

An April Nature editorial, however, predicted that computational argumentation will improve. “One day,” the journal suggested, such systems will be able to “create persuasive language with stronger oratorical ability and recourse to emotive appeals—both of which are known to be more effective than facts and logic in gaining attention and winning converts, especially for false claims.”

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