Updated Jun 19, 2018

IBM's AI can beat humans in an argument

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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In photos: How the coronavirus outbreak is impacting on daily lives

A woman receives a rose delivered to her via a drone in Lebanon's coastal city of Jounieh. Photo: Joseph EidAFP via Getty Images

The novel coronavirus pandemic is having a huge impact on the lives of people around the world.

The big picture: The first known case outside China was in Thailand on Jan. 13. Since then, global infection numbers have surged, and governments around the world have responded with measures designed to curb the spread of the virus — ranging from lockdowns to physical distancing enforcement. There were more than 723,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections by early Monday, per Johns Hopkins data). However, life hasn’t stopped because of the pandemic, but it has changed. Here's how.

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World coronavirus updates: Global death toll surpasses 34,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

The novel coronavirus has now killed more than 34,000 people and infected over 723,000 others globally, per Johns Hopkins data. Italy reported more than 10,700 deaths early Monday.

The big picture: Governments around the world have stepped up public health and economic measures to stop the spread of the virus and soften the financial impact. In the U.S., now the site of the largest outbreak in the world, President Trump said Sunday that his administration will extend its "15 Days to Slow the Spread" guidelines until April 30,

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 1 a.m. ET: 722,435 — Total deaths: 33,997 — Total recoveries: 151,991.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 1 a.m.. ET: 142,502 — Total deaths: 2,506 — Total recoveries: 4,856.
  3. Federal government latest: President Trump says his administration will extend its "15 Days to Slow the Spread" guidelines until April 30.
  4. Public health updates: Fauci says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from virus.
  5. State updates: Louisiana governor says state is on track to exceed ventilator capacity by end of this week — Cuomo says Trump's mandatory quarantine comments "panicked" some people into fleeing New York
  6. World updates: Italy on Sunday reports 756 new deaths, bringing its total 10,779. Spain reports almost 840 dead, another new daily record that bring its total to over 6,500.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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