IBM Corp. has debuted an artificial intelligence (AI) technology that can successfully engage in open debate with humans.

On June 18 IBM held a public demonstration pitting its technology, dubbed Project Debater, against two top-ranked debaters, and the results were… interesting.

While IBM has shown off AI that can beat humans in chess and Jeopardy tournaments, this was the first time that an AI system had meaningfully engaged with humans in a full live debate.

“Following closing summaries from both sides, a snap poll showed that a majority of audience members thought Project Debater enriched their knowledge more than its human counterpart,” said Arvind Krishna, director of IBM research, in a June 18 blog.

The debate’s first round pitted the AI against Noa Ovadia, Israel’s 2016 national debate champion, on the topic of government subsidization of space exploration, while the second round was against Israeli debate expert Dan Zafrir on the topic of increasing the use of telemedicine.

The topics were chosen from a curated list to ensure a meaningful debate, Krishna said in the blog. However, he assured readers that Project Debater was never trained on the subject.

Project Debater has been in the works since 2012 in IBM’s Haifa research lab, the largest of its kind outside of the U.S.

What makes Project Debater unique from other AI systems, including IBM’s own Watson, is the research team equipped it with three unique components: data-driven speech writing and delivery, listening comprehension that can identify claims hidden within long, continuous conversation and modelling of human dilemmas in a knowledge graph to enable principled arguments.

“Debater scans billions of sentences to generate a coherent and persuasive position on a topic,” Krishna wrote. “It then listens to its opponent’s speech and swiftly generates a spontaneous compelling rebuttal, exhibiting a type of argumentation.”

Future plans for Project Debater’s technology will see it integrated into IBM Cloud and IBM Watson, which are currently available for companies to use in mining data sets and developing business insights.

With IBM breaking patent records in AI, cyber security, cloud and quantum computing, it will be interesting to see what the future brings for human/AI interaction.

Check out a video of Project Debater in action below.

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