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IBM’s machine argues, pretty convincingly, with humans

The machine drew from a library of “hundreds of millions” of documents - mostly newspaper articles and academic journals - to form its responses to a topic it was not prepared for beforehand.

Its performance was not without slip-ups, but those in attendance made clear their thoughts when voting on who did best.

While the humans had better delivery, the group agreed, the machine offered greater substance in its arguments.

That, IBM said, spoke to the heart of its goal: augmenting human beings to make decisions quickly and with more data than ever before.

“I think it says actually very optimistic things about how humans respond to facts and figures,” said Noa Ovadia, one of the human debaters at the event.

“I think they are important, but they’re not everything when we make up our argumentation.”

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Ms Ovadia was Israel’s national debating champion in 2016, and began working with IBM a few months ago as an opponent to its machine.

She told the BBC: “I think eventually when it can do what we do but better, that’ll be great thing for the human race - for informed decision-making, for informed voting, for informed everything.”

Offline thinking

Project Debater was not hooked up to the internet. Instead, it drew its information from a data bank of carefully curated sources chosen by IBM’s researchers.

The machine took part in two debates. The first was on whether there should be more publicly funded space exploration. The second was on whether more should be invested in telemedicine technologies.

Each participant had four minutes to make an opening statement, then a four-minute rebuttal, and then a two minute-conclusion.

When Ms Ovadia argued money should be spent on more pressing needs than space travel, the machine offered this reply: “It is very easy to say that there are more important things to spend money on, and I do not dispute this. No one is claiming that this is the only item on our expense list. But that is beside the point.

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