Leah Zitter

Leah Zitter

My Student Debated a Robot: Here’s What Happened

Radar Zero | January 10th, 2017

One of my former students debated a robot last month. Ninety-eight percent of the fifty-member audience judged her better on delivery because the robot sounded, well, robotic, while eighty-five percent determined the robot was more informative.

June 19, 2018, Noa Ovadia, 2016 Israeli national debate champion, debated IBM’s Project Debater in a 20-minute debate on whether the U.S.government should support space exploration. The debate took place in IBM’s San Francisco office.

The debate

There were three sessions.

Session One:

Ovadia: “I think it’s not that the government's money won’t help out if it were to be given. We just think it doesn't meet the criteria in comparison to other things.”

Robot: “If I may put it a bit differently. Subsidizing space exploration is like investing in really good tires. It may not be fun to spend the extra money, but ultimately you know that both you and everyone else on the road would be better off.”

Session Two:

Another professional debater, Hayah Eichler, told the robot: “IBM’s debater can have all the opinions in the world, but IBM’s debater does not pay taxes, and we do.”

To which the machine responded: “You are speaking at the extremely fast rate of 218 words per minute. There is no need to hurry.”

Session Three:

IBM's robot refuted Israeli debate champion, Dan Zafrir, on medicine.

“There is a lot at stake today,” the machine drawled, supporting telemedicine, “especially for me.” But the robot lamented it couldn’t say the situation made its blood boil because “I have no blood.”

Here's how debating robots improves our world

IBM Researcher, Director Arvind Krishna, told Fox News that technology like Debater’s software could help lawyers in the courtroom, CEOs on company strategy, and politicians with tricky issues. Intelligence analysts, too, could use this AI technology in counter-terrorism when determining if a particular individual represents a threat. On a micro-scale, students could use AI debating technology for critical thinking skills.

The bottom line is that while we humans tend to be deflected by emotions, a robot absorbs the conversation and is programmed to respond analytically and objectively.

As Chris Reed, professor of computer science and philosophy at the University of Dundee told me, "I can use this debating machine to improve my thinking skills in a very confusing age."

The Debater Robot on the cloud

'Tis the period when we wonder which news reports are true. One Guardian article recommended seeing both sides of the political debate - but that’s easier said than done. That's where technology like Debater’s software really proves invaluable with its BS-screening capacities.

“Can I have [such a machine] in my home?” Fox News economic and political commentator Stuart Varney asked Krishna, “because I spend a lot of my time debating with myself the issues that I’m going to talk about next day on television?”

“Absolutely,” Krishna responded, “we intend to deliver this as a cloud service, so you’re spot on in being able to do exactly what you’re describing”

“Really! I could literally get out of the cloud and bring it down and debate the robot?”

“Correct, you could give the robot a decision and it could argue both sides of the decision, so you can get the best arguments of both sides.”

Here’s how IBM AI Debater works

Project Debater works by cobbling together multiple algorithms and AI techniques put out by IBM Research over the last several years.

Once the computer is told the topic, it scans billions of news and academic articles, using an algorithm to decide which of those reports are relevant. Another algorithm makes sure the robot culls only one copy of each report. During the debate, a voice recognition system listens to the machine’s opponent, adding another layer where things could go wrong if the robot misintreprets what it hears.

Actually, misintrepreting is only one of the robot’s potential mishaps. During one part of the IBM debate, the robot senselessly inserted an irrelevant part of some video transcript, while, more often than not, it deviated from the discussed topic.

The robot also lacked connection with its audience and its opponents, for instance failing to match its language to their arguments. Example, Project Debater resorted to an ad hominem in the debate on telemedicine where, rather than discuss the topic, the machine accused the human of fearing innovations.

On top of that, IBM’s AI technology failed 40 percent of past debates.

But there’s hope. IBM started this experiment in 2012 and has been rigorously improving its trials ever since.

Project Debater can swing any provocative topic, researchers insisted. And both the IBM research team and its machine fervently trust its capacities.

”I am a true believer in the power of technology,” quipped their robot, “as I should be.”