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IBM's fast-talking AI machine just lost to a human champion in a live debate

On Monday, Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist in 2016's World Debating Championships, faced off against IBM's Project Debater — a computer touted by the company as the first artificial-intelligence system built to meaningfully debate humans.

Project Debater, which has been in the works since 2012, is designed to come up with coherent, convincing speeches of its own, while taking in the arguments of a human opponent and creating its own rebuttal.

To generate its arguments and rebuttals, Project Debater uses newspaper and magazine articles from its own database, and also takes in the nuances of the human opponent's arguments.

The topic of the debate — whether or not preschool should be subsidized — wasn't revealed to the AI system or Natarajan until 15 minutes before they took to the stage.

The rebuttal segment of the debate was where some of the big differences between human and computer (beyond looks and vocal capabilities) were laid bare.

Natarajan addressed specific parts of Project Debater's arguments and rebuffed them — such as saying it's unrealistic to expect a government has an unrestricted budget to put toward helpful programs.

The AI we're used to seeing — like digital assistants built into smart speakers — can only be used in very narrow ways, such as answering specific questions.

IBM's fast-talking AI machine just lost to a human champion in a live debate

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Both participants were told the topic 15 minutes in advance — Natarajan was to argue against government-subsidized preschools and Project Debater would advocate for them.

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