Mumbai: If you think that your artificial intelligence (AI)-powered virtual assistant like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Samsung’s Bixby or Microsoft’s Cortana are smart just because they can respond to your “wake" messages and answer your questions, you may want to think again.

On 18 June, an artificial intelligence (AI) system engaged in the first ever live, public debates with humans. At an event held at International Business Machines Corp.’s (IBM) Watson West site in San Francisco, a champion debater and IBM’s AI system, Project Debater, began by preparing arguments for and against the statement: “We should subsidize space exploration."

Both sides then delivered a four-minute opening statement, a four-minute rebuttal, and a two-minute summary.

“Just think about that for a moment. An AI system engaged with an expert human debater, listened to her argument, and responded convincingly with its own, unscripted reasoning to persuade an audience to consider its position on a controversial topic," said Arvind Krishna, director at IBM Research, in an 18 June blog.

IBM later held a second debate between the system and another Israeli expert debater, Dan Zafrir, that featured opposing arguments on the statement: “We should increase the use of telemedicine."

IBM’s Project Debater aims at helping “people make evidence-based decisions when the answers aren’t black-and-white".

In development since 2012, Project Debater is IBM’s next big milestone for AI. The company’s Deep Blue supercomputing system beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1996-97 and its Watson supercomputing system even beat Jeopardy players in 2011.

Project Debater doesn’t learn a topic. It is taught to debate unfamiliar topics, as long as these are well covered in the massive corpus that the system mines -- including hundreds of millions of articles from numerous well-known newspapers and magazines. The system uses Watson Speech to Text API, and it will contribute to enhancing Watson’s advanced language and dialogue features. Project Debater’s underlying technologies will also be commercialized in IBM Cloud and IBM Watson in the future.

A global IBM Research team led by IBM’s Haifa, Israel lab endowed Project Debater with three capabilities. First, data-driven speech writing and delivery. Second, listening comprehension that can identify key claims hidden within long continuous spoken language. And third, modelling human dilemmas in a unique knowledge graph to enable principled arguments.

The development of an automatic debating system, according to IBM, involves advancing research in a range of AI fields. These include Argument Mining, Debate Speech Analysis and a debating system that relies on more fundamental natural language processing (NLP) capabilities. An example is the ability to assess the semantic relatedness of various pieces of texts and glue these into a coherent narrative.

Unlike a keyword search that will throw up a collection of relevant documents, Project Debater develops a much deeper understanding of the topic at hand, and constructs a point of view based on its findings. However, because it is a machine, Project Debater is impartial—it isn’t out to prove a position or to be “right." Project Debater has been taught to understand the nuances of language and decide the stance of an argument given the topic.

IBM reasons that debate enriches decision making, helping people weigh the pros and cons of new ideas and philosophies. “In the future, we believe machines will be able to help humans with many important decisions we make daily."

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