History as machine debates man on preschool subsidy

Mr Harish Natarajan (R), an Oxford University graduate and the 2012 European debating champion and the machine debater (L) at a session on whether governments should or not subsidise preschool.
International audience gathering in San Francisco was this week treated to yet another milestone in the first moving technology world.

At Yerba Buena Centre, history was made when artificial intelligent computer engaged human being in a live interview on whether or not governments should subsidise preschool education.

Exhibiting nearly all the qualities of a normal human being in her arguments, the Artificial Intelligent machine (IBM’s Project Debater) engaged Harish Natarajan in a heated debate underscoring reasons why governments should oil the preschool learning.

The computer backed arguments with scientific examples arguing for the financing but at the end she lost to the opponent Harish Natarajan, an Oxford University graduate and the 2012 European debating champion.

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The audience who voted for Natarajan to be the winner however were unanimous that the machine did a better job in enriching their knowledge on the topic.

Following the normal debating style, the session started with the machine and Natarajan offering a four minute introduction remarks on the topic followed by another four-minute time for rebuttals and ended up with a two-minute closing remarks from each.

The machine kicked off the debate by first acknowledging the opponent before moving to the opening remarks.

“Greetings Harish, the question of subsidy goes beyond money and touches on social, political and moral issues. When we subsidise pre-school, we are making good use of government money,” the computer said in opening remarks

“Investment in preschool results in more successful lives, including better income and health as well as a decreased likelihood to be involved in crime,” said the machine whose gender is female.

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“For decades, research has demonstrated that high quality preschool is one of the best investments of public money resulting in children who fair on better in tests and successful than those with no similar access.

“Secondly, 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 preschools can help kids overcome disadvantage often associated with poverty,” she added.

In her citations, the computer pointed out that the OECD has always recommended that the government subsidise preprimary education to boost performance in poor areas.

A statistical summary of studies from 1960 and 2013 by the national institute for early education research found out that high quality preschool can create long term academic and social benefits for individuals in society.

Before the debate started, the organisers informed the audience that the computer had not been briefed about the topic of discussion and that nothing is recorded.

Both sides had only 15 minutes to prepare for the debate, affording neither the chance to train on the topic. In other words, an AI system engaged with an expert human debater, listened to his argument and responded convincingly with its own, unscripted reasoning to persuade the audience to consider its position on a controversial topic. This represents another important step in the long-term journey to teach AI to master human language.

The human debater, Harish Natarajan opposed the resolution, arguing that a preschool subsidy doesn’t effectively address the root causes of poverty and is simply “a politically motivated giveaway” to the middle class. While acknowledging that poverty is a terrible condition that must be addressed by government and societal resources, he said other programs were more effective. A subsidy, he argued, would simply be a giveaway to people who likely already have their children enrolled in preschool.

Both Project Debater and Natarajan were able to offer valuable and interesting discussions, but differed in their approach and style. The AI system pulled in data that supported its view, while Natarajan used his significant skills to reframe the debate about where government money could be best used to ensure societal equality.

Results of the debate were tabulated via a real-time online poll. Before the debate, 79 percent of the audience agreed that preschools should be subsidized, while 13 percent disagreed (eight percent were undecided). After the debate, 62 percent of poll participants agreed that preschools should be subsidized, while 30 percent disagreed, meaning Natarajan was declared the winner.

Interestingly, 58 percent said that Project Debater better enriched their knowledge about the topic at hand, compared to Harish’s 20 percent.

According to IBM Research director Dario Gil, the goal of the debate was not to discover who is right or which side won, but to “master the complex and rich world of human language.”

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San FranciscoYerba Buena CentreIBMHarish NatarajanOECDProject DebaterIBM’s Project DebaterArtificial Intelligence