Can a robot master the art of debate?

Congratulations to Harish Natarajan, world champion in debating, who this week entered a much-anticipated debating competition against…a robot! The robot, Project Debater, was designed by IBM who have been working on it since 2012.

The topic of the debate was whether nursery schools should be subsidised. Both sides were given 15 minutes to prepare. Nothing was scripted and the robot was not connected to the Internet, instead it had been fed 10 billion sentences of scholarly articles and newspaper reports. It was able to quote relevant source, give eloquent and compelling arguments and counter arguments and it even managed a joke, beginning the debate with the words: “Greetings Harish, I have heard that you hold the world record in debate competition wins against humans. But I suspect you’ve never debated a machine. Welcome to the future.’

The robot lost the debate. This time.