IBM’s argumentative AI-powered computer known as Project Debater faced off in a live debate last week against Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist in 2016’s World Debating Championships. Neither debater was given internet access.  Natarajan won but Project Debater demonstrated just how far AI has come in since 2011 when the Watson Computer won the Jeopardy! Quiz show.

The live debate was broadcast live and organized by a non-profit firm called Intelligence Squared US. The debate topic was revealed to the contestants just fifteen minutes before the debate started: whether preschool should be subsidized. Project Debater argued for subsidizing preschool while Natarajan argued against.

Prior to the start, the audience logged their opinion on the issue—79% for subsidization, 13% against. The audience was polled against after the debate, and the debate winner was chosen by who gained the most points.  While awaiting the final verdict, Natarajan noted how combining Project Debater’s skills with a human “could be incredibly powerful.”  In the end, only 62% of the audience remained for subsidization while 30% disagreed, awarding Natarajan the win.

While Project Debater provided eloquent arguments, it lacked in rebuttal, which may have cost it the victory. Despite the loss, IBM remained proud of its Project.  “It’s really pushing the boundaries [of the] kinds of AI systems that are more interactive with us and can understand us better,” IBM research director Dario Gil told CNN.


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