New "debate robot" can keep up with humans?

I try to keep everyone up to date with the latest pending threats to the survival of mankind posed by the advent of killer robots and artificial intelligence, but I’ll confess I never saw this one coming. There are plenty of robots out there taking jobs away from hard-working Americans, but they’re usually in industries like fast food restaurants or taxi drivers. But now they’re going to steal jobs from… debate teams? That’s what IBM is up to, apparently. They have a robot which is supposedly able to engage in debates with human beings. (NBC News)

The human brain may be the ultimate super computer, but artificial intelligence is catching up so fast, it can now hold a substantive debate with a human, according to audience feedback.

IBM’s Project Debater made its public debut in San Francisco Monday afternoon, where it squared off against Noa Ovadia, the 2016 Israeli debate champion and in a second debate, Dan Zafrir, a nationally renowned debater in Israel. The AI is the latest grand challenge from IBM, which previously created Deep Blue, technology that beat chess champion Garry Kasparov and Watson, which bested humans on the game show Jeopardy.

In its first public outing, Project Debater turned out to be a formidable opponent, scanning the hundreds of millions of newspaper and journal articles in its memory to quickly synthesize an argument on a topic and position it was assigned on the spot. The skinny, black rectangular screen stands about five and a half feet tall, putting it around the same height as a human opponent.

You can click through to the original article if you want to see a picture of the beast, but as usual, it’s completely creepy. (Not as creepy as that door smashing dog from Boston Dynamics, but still pretty bad.) But before we add this one to our list of things built by humans that will eventually bring about the collapse of humanity, is this robot really demonstrating artificial intelligence in a meaningful way? And is it really “debating” in the purest sense of the word?

The robot is given a topic on short notice and immediately begins searching a database it can access containing hundreds of millions of published articles and journals, no doubt looking for keywords that match the topic. Then it synthesizes the information into what sounds like cogent arguments. But Google has been playing around with automated news aggregators for quite a while now which do essentially the same thing. It can be sloppy, but it gets the job done. Still, debating is more than just spitting out knowledge. Is this robot really responding to the opponent’s points and countering them with better information?

Here’s a video from IBM where they describe it and you can see/hear the robot in action.

Before you start getting too comfortable with the idea of AI robots being nerdy, harmless debate team members, just remember what the rest of the AI world is up to. Over at Google their own AI program continues to grown and now they’re saying that it can predict when patients will die more accurately than their doctors. Sleep tight, kids.