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Photo: IBM Research

On Monday, a quarrelsome AI from IBM matched wits with a pair of human debaters in San Francisco in an impressive showcase of technology known as "computational argumentation."

Why it matters: By quickly synthesizing persuasive arguments from a trove of source material, IBM's remarkably conversant debater can "help broaden minds with unbiased debate," said Arvind Krishna, IBM's director of research. It could even be used to combat fake news by "asking critical questions of news," according to Noam Slonim, a technical staff member at IBM's Haifa Research Laboratory in Israel.

But, but, but: To construct its arguments, the computer dips into hundreds of millions of articles from newspapers and academic journals. It's not able to determine the veracity of what it reads, so it has to trust that its source material is accurate.

The details: IBM's Project Debater sparred with two world-class human debaters in front of an audience, which later ranked each debater's performance. In one matchup, the computer argued eloquently for government subsidies for space exploration, contending that it will "expand our collective sense of humanity's sense of place in the universe." In the second, it offered statistics to argue for expanding telemedicine — and at one point stopped just short of calling its human opponent a liar.

The score: Based on voting, the first debate was a wash. But in the second, the computer changed the minds of nine undecided audience members, while its human opponent didn't change any. It even cracked some self-deprecating jokes about its artificial nature along the way.

  • The good: Project Debater got consistently high marks from the audience for thoughtful arguments that were packed full of facts and quotations. It structured its points with clarity, and understood its opponent's speeches accurately enough to rebut them point by point.
  • The bad: In a possibly callous slip-up, Project Debater deemed space exploration more important than better health care. It also displayed a clueless streak when it repeatedly urged its human listeners not to "be afraid" of new technology. Slonim remarked that for all its debating prowess, the system still has no tact.

The big question: Will this technology help AI explain its reasoning? Opaque algorithms that offer data-driven outputs without backup are increasingly under fire for being error-prone or even unethical. If AI programs ever get to the point where they can present evidence of how they reach their decisions, something like Project Debater could serve as their interpreter — and nudge the field towards much-needed transparency.

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The top Republicans in the House and Senate told reporters after meeting with President Biden at the White House that "there is a bipartisan desire to get an outcome" on an infrastructure package, but stressed that revisiting the 2017 tax cuts is a "red line."

Why it matters: Wednesday marked the first time that Biden has hosted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the White House.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was asked Wednesday whether he was concerned about elevating Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) to GOP leadership after she has promoted baseless claims about the election. He responded: "I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election."

Why it matters: Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) was ousted as House GOP conference chair earlier Wednesday — in a vote that McCarthy supported — over her continued criticisms of former President Trump and his lies about election fraud.

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Gaza crisis: Casualties pile up with no signs of ceasefire from Israel, Hamas

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip leave their neighborhood on Wednesday following an explosion. Photo: li Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tel Aviv — With Israel and Hamas now engaged in their most destructive fight in seven years, the Biden administration is dispatching a State Department official to join the de-escalation efforts.

The latest: The Israeli air force attacked a meeting of senior Hamas military leaders on Wednesday in Gaza and reported it had killed the Gaza City Brigade commander and the heads of Hamas’ cyber arm and weapons research and development department, along with at least three other senior officials.