I am a real fan of Mediawatch on Radio New Zealand. The show always provides cutting edge insightful commentary on all things media.
The show in the last week had this fascinating story about the world debating champion being pitted against a computer in a debate. The computer and the human were given 15 minutes to research and prepare and then present an argument in favour of or opposing the premise that public subsidising of child care centres is a public good.
Here is the debate:
My first impression, the computer was not freaking bad …
It used to be chess games. Contests between computers and humans used to be interesting affairs but computers have become more and more dominant. Only the best players on a good day can beat their computer opponents.
Peter Griffin in Noted has this description of the debate:
Last night’s debate in San Francisco between Project Debater, an artificial intelligence engine based on Watson, and Harish Natarajan, the 2016 World Debating Championship grand finalist, suggests this is where humans still have the edge – for now.
Project Debater sat on stage, a monolithic black tablet emanating an even, American-accented woman’s voice. Over 25 minutes she traded statements and rebuttals with Natarajan on the topic of whether pre-school should be subsidised.
Miss Debater, as she has been dubbed, was arguing for the resolution. She and her human rival had just 15 minutes to prepare for the debate. But able to trawl 10 billion sentences of reference material, mainly newspaper and magazine articles, it didn’t take long for the computer to formulate a strong argument for funding preschool.
The computer says yes
Laying out her case logically, she peppered her talk with OECD and US Centers for Disease Control report statistics and even quoted former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Most impressive was Project Debater’s ability to listen to Natarajan’s arguments in real time, her display blinking away all the time, and counter them with a reasonable, fact-based rebuttal. She even managed some emotive flourishes at one point saying, “to be clear, my intention is not to leave a suitcase full of money for everyone to grab at will.”
Natarajan, without any research materials to draw on, had to rely on his best rhetorical skills. And his ability to do so skillfully is what separated man and machine. His rebuttals were stronger than Project Debater who largely just continued on with her narrative in favour of the resolution.
What really interested me was what the computer said about poverty:
And now a few words about poverty. While I cannot experience poverty directly, and have no complaints about my own standards of living, I still have the following to share.
Regarding poverty research shows that a good preschool can clearly help the disadvantages often associated with poverty.
And the computer referred to something Gough Whitlam said in 1973! That man was ahead of his time …
Given such enlightenment maybe it is time for our computer overlords to take over.
Of course it could all end in tears …