IBM’s Think 2019 conference livestreams human-AI debate

Global Business

Tech giant IBM is holding its annual IBM Think conference in San Francisco. This year it gave the world a look at some innovations making groundbreaking strides in the present while also predicting how technology will radically change the future.

CGTN’s Mark Niu reports.

At IBM Think, audiences witnessed the world’s first livestream public debate between a human and an artificial intelligence-driven machine.

“Greetings Harish, I heard you hold the world record in debate competition wins against humans,” said the machine known as Project Debater in her female voice. “But I suspect you’ve never debated a machine.”

Both sides had fifteen minutes to prepare for the debate resolution: “We should subsidize preschool.”

Project debater drew on a collection of 10 billion sentences and 400 million articles to formulate a four-minute opening argument in support of subsidizing preschool.

“While I cannot experience poverty directly and have no complaints concerning my own standard of living, I still have the following to share,” said Project Debater. “Regarding poverty, research clearly shows that a good preschool can help kids overcome the disadvantages often associated with poverty.”

The machine is competing against Harish Natarajan, who was a grand finalist at the 2016 world debating championships.

“Yes, you could make it slightly more accessible for individuals to attend preschool, but that doesn’t mean those individuals who are as poor as Project Debater seems to want the teams to care about people… are going to be those who have the ability to send their child to preschool,” said Natarjan in his opening remarks.

“Giving opportunities to the less fortunate should be a moral obligation of any human being,” said Project Debater in its rebuttal. “And it is a key role for the state. To be clear we should find the funding for preschools and not rely on luck or market forces.”

“Debater needed to listen to Harish Natarajan for four minutes making very subtle and complex arguments and still generate a rebuttal.” said Noam Slonim, the Principal Investigator of Project Debater. “This is a different level of language understanding and still the system I think was performing very well.”

When the debate ends, polls indicate Natarajan won since he swayed the opinion of 17-percent of the audience toward his favor.

“I feel that this is out of the comfort zone of artificial intelligence and this is why it is so fascinating,” said Slonim. “It has so many open questions, so I feel the debate we saw is just the beginning.”

But polls did show the computer enriched the audience’s knowledge more than the human debater.

“What the system was able to do and is very difficult for a human to do in a short amount of time is get a lot of information and data. But the human I think was clearly better in building arguments step by step,” said Ranit Aharonov, Manager of the Project Debater Team. “I don’t think that AI should be striving to get the same kind of intelligence as humans, but rather we should use the strength of computers which is different from human intelligence, to augment and enhance humans in what they do.”

Other futuristic technology on display at the event included IBM Q System One.

It performs Quantum Computing, which is a radically different approach that scientists believe could solve problems too complex even for even super computers.

The IBM Q System One must be kept inside an airtight case that’s colder than outer space.
Any change in temperature could disrupt the pristine computing environment.

Other tech making its debut included the verifier, which attaches to a smartphone to detect food bacteria and even determine whether a food product is counterfeit.

“Seventy-three percent of the extra virgin olive oil coming into this US is mislabeled or counterfeit,” said Donna Dillenberger, IBM Fellow at Thomas J. Watson Research Center, during a presentation on stage. “We’ve done this not only with olive oil and other cooking oils. We’ve used this to tell the difference between red wine, cabernets. We’ve used this to tell the difference between white wines. We have a global problem with Whiskey. Whiskey is getting diluted with Coca-cola.”

Dillenberger believes the technology can go beyond smartphones by being embedded into everything from cutting boards to the very utensils we use to consume our meals.