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Man vs Machine: IBM’s AI debate computer loses to human

AI(Artificial Intelligence) and Financial Technology.
AI(Artificial Intelligence) and Financial Technology. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Standing at human height, Project Debater’s ominous black box remained silent except for three rotating blue circles as it mulled over 10 billion sentences from news articles and scientific journals. Facing her onstage, Natarajan scrawled notes on scrap paper.

International Business Machines Corp. fell short in its latest attempt to prove machines can triumph over man. But it came close.

The tech giant's six-year-old artificial intelligence debating system, affectionately dubbed "Miss Debater," went head-to-head with one of the world's most decorated practitioners Monday. After a 25-minute rapid-fire exchange about pre-school subsidies -- during which the female-voiced AI showed flashes of very homo sapien humor -- the audience handed the victory to 31-year-old Harish Natarajan.

The unorthodox contest marked the latest highly marketed man-versus-machine challenge. In 1996, IBM created a computer system that beat a chess grandmaster for the first time. In 2011, its Watson supercomputer defeated two record-winning Jeopardy! contestants. And Alphabet Inc.'s AlphaGo famously proved AI can master the ancient and intricate game of Go. But debating -- which requires creativity and emotive elocution -- has proven more elusive.

IBM's machine -- known formally as Project Debater -- kicked off Monday's match-up with a cheeky greeting. "I have heard you hold the world record in debate competition wins against humans, but I suspect you have never debated a machine. Welcome to the future."

The event unfolded in front of hundreds of journalists, tech industry insiders and software engineers at IBM's Think conference in downtown San Francisco. The topic: We should subsidize preschools. Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty was among the spectators, who voted Natarajan the victor but also said her company's machine better enriched their knowledge.

Both contestants were given the topic at the same time and had 15 minutes to pare down arguments into a four-minute speech, four-minute rebuttal and two-minute summary. Standing at human height, Project Debater's ominous black box remained silent except for three rotating blue circles as it mulled over 10 billion sentences from news articles and scientific journals. Facing her onstage, Natarajan scrawled notes on scrap paper.

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