Why Debate Is the Next Frontier in Artificial Intelligence

The implications went far beyond the company or the game show.

A New Era of Possibility

In 2011, IBM’s Watson system squared off on the game show Jeopardy! against two human champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. It beat them both so handily that for his last response Jennings simply wrote, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” It was an awesome display, unlike anything anyone had seen before.

The implications went far beyond the company or the game show. Watson’s triumph kicked off an arms race in artificial intelligence. Later that same year, Apple launched Siri, its personal assistant. In 2015, Google’s AlphaGo computer beat a human champion at the famous Asian board game and Amazon launched its Echo smart speaker.

This summer, IBM raised the stakes again with its Project Debater, a system that can compete with skilled humans arguing about controversial topics. Much like Watson, Debater’s objective is not to launch a new product, but to expand horizons. While the full implications aren’t yet clear, we are surely we are embarking on a new era of possibility.

A History of Grand Challenges

In the technology industry, IBM is unique for its longevity. While others seem to rise and fall with each new cycle, the giant of Armonk has somehow managed to to stay on the cutting edge for over a century. It was a leader in tabulating machines, then mainframes, then PC’s, The Internet and now artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

A key to its success has been its history of grand challenges such as the Deep Blue project which defeated world champion Garry Kasparov at chess, the Blue Gene project which created a new class of “massively parallel” supercomputers and, more recently, Watson and Debater. These are pursued without any immediate business applications in mind, but are meant to stretch the boundaries of technology.

“A successful grand challenge is one that people, even experts in the field, regard as an epiphany and changes assumptions about what’s possible,” Bernard Meyerson, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, told me. “The commercial value comes in applying those new possibilities to business problems.”

Project Debater is very much in the same vein. Nobody really knows how it will affect IBM’s products or its competitive position. Rather, it was a task undertaken to pursue problems that were, until now, considered to be unsolvable. If history is any guide though, it will drive the business forward for years to come.

Going Beyond Games

What makes Project Debater unique is that it attempts to answer questions that have no definitive answers. With today’s personal assistants, we can ask questions like “What’s the weather going to be today?” or “Where is the nearest Starbucks?” but we can’t ask them things like, “Should I invest my money in stocks or in bonds?” and expect to get a cogent answer.

“When AI started back in the 50’s they used games as a test, first checkers, then backgammon, then chess and eventually Alpha Go.” Noam Slonim, a researcher at IBM told me. “It’s clear at each stage of the game what the options are and you can approach it like a search problem, which can be solved largely with computational power and clever algorithms.”

While making clear that teaching computers to play — and win — those games was a major and worthwhile achievement, he stressed that solving the much more enigmatic problems of debate presents new and very different challenges. “Games represent the comfort zone of AI,” he says. “With Project Debater we wanted to move out of that comfort zone”.

Yet to do that takes more than just a vision. The reason that nobody has taught a machine to debate is not that nobody ever thought of it before or were unaware of the potential, but because it presents unique problems that are devilishly hard to solve.