Debating IBM Watson’s Project Debater

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Watson Background
  3. Humans debating AI
  4. Concluding Remarks
  1. Introduction

For centuries, humans have debated complex topics. Debate can be traced back to Ancient Greece where the great philosophers such as Socrates debated others on the workings of the world.

The task requires that humans pull together facts from highly diverse sources and clearly articulate the points and try to convince others that they in fact have the better argument.

Most recently, presidential candidates have been the type to debate. The invention of the television changed the debate in United States presidential elections. The first televised debate was between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 viewed by over 66 million people.

Today television debates make or break candidates in the United States where candidates composure under extreme pressure is measured against opponents.

  1. Watson Background

The Watson computer system made history in 2011 when it defeated Brad Rutter as well as Ken Jennings to take the million-dollar prize.

Behind the scenes, Watson packs some serious hardware and is an incredible engineering feat. The key innovation and driver behind its speed and diversity of tasks is the parallel computational ability that it possesses.

The hardware itself is no joke either, Watson is essentially ninety IBM servers tied together with a combined 2800 process threads and 16 terabytes of RAM. Funny enough, there is just 4 terabytes of hard drive space meaning there is four times as much RAM as hard drive space.

Watson is exploring completely new domains as well. The tool will be used by ESPN to enhance fantasy football further. The collaboration between the ESPN and IBM will be used to provide even better predictions and facts for users.

  1. Humans debating AI

IBM is working on Project Debater a highly competent AI that can understand human speed and develop intelligent responses back to humans.

The IBM had Watson face off in February 2019 against the winner of the 2012 European Debate. The topic in contention was subsidies that are applied to pre-schools.

In preparation for the February debate, IBM trained project debater on over 10 billion sentences mainly taken from newspapers as well as research journals. Key to the task was that each side was given 15 minutes to prepare. Watson (like a human) likely benefitted from as much time as possible to sift through all of that information at its disposal. After 10 minutes of debate on each side, the audience crowned the human as the winner of the debate. The defeat highlighted the intricacies present in a task such as debate and how hard it is for a machine to master some of the traits that can make some humans so skilled at it.

Recently, the IBM team brought back project Debater at the University of Cambridge just nine months after the first showdown. At the university at Cambridge, Watson debated a human on the dangers of AI ironically enough. Watson had two opening statements where it took opposing sides. The first statement was a pro-AI argument while the second was against AI. The machine learned traits and patterns from over 1,100 human submissions that debated different viewpoints on the topic. At the end, the audience was polled to see who was swayed more. The result was that a majority (by a tiny margin) believe that AI will ultimately be beneficial to society.

IBM offers Speed by Crowd. The platform is a way to crowdsource decisions. The platform allows users to share their arguments and then can create narratives from both positive and negative viewpoints and give fresh perspectives that may not have been apparent to you at the start. On the IBM Project Debater website, there is an option to upload your speech regarding whether AI will do more harm than good. As of this writing, there are 1,179 submissions. After submitting a speech, Watson will digest the composite arguments that make up your speech and compare them to its existing library of themes that it has compiled from others’ speeches.

Definitely check out the live and public Project Debater web page. The interface allows discovery of full composite speeches for and against AI. The arguments are complete and certainly are convincing. My favorite part of the project is the theme analysis at the bottom of the page. There are themes that Watson chose to omit in the final computation of the speeches. Watson shows the main theme as well as similar themes that are essentially saying the same thing.

  1. Concluding Remarks

Artificial intelligence is advancing to a point that is human-like in many domains. As detailed in this article, IBM Watson has demonstrated that it can defeat humans in a game such as Jeopardy that requires a combination of sheer knowledge as well as tact and human understanding.

Additionally, Watson can even learn to debate human topics and can do extremely well at it. As demonstrated for the first time on record, an AI was able to successfully sway a human audience to its point of view.


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Nick Allyn

Hello, my name is Nick Allyn. I am extremely passionate about the field of artificial intelligence. I believe that artificial intelligence will save millions of lives in the coming years due in higher cancer survival rates, cleaner air, as well as autonomous cars.

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