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What happens when AI stops playing games?

Humans plus machine — AI shifts from games into something more subjective: human discourse.

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The question, “can a machine be made to think like a person?” has always been tied to strategy games. Games, with their clear rules and obvious winners and losers, were perfect proving grounds for early computer scientists, who could break them down into clearly defined problem sets. Audiences could marvel at the progress of man vs machine face offs, even if they didn’t fully understand the underlying technology.

The earliest AI game systems relied on a brute force, top-down approach: programmers downloaded every possible outcome into their AI systems, which were built around narrowly defined, rule-based criteria. In the 1950s, the earliest versions of neural networks and machine learning arrived. This represented a shift towards bottom-up programming, systems designed to determine the probability of various outcomes based on training data. One early system, a virtual rat solving a maze, was made up of vacuum tubes, motors, and clutches. As the rat navigated, the machine learned and shifted probabilities.

IBM debuted their first AI Grand Challenge — a multi-year effort meant to push the limits of artificial intelligence — in 1997. Deep Blue beat reigning chess world champion Gary Kasparov, and was seen as the final triumph for the top-down approach. In the last decade, advances in machine learning, deep learning, and natural language processing paved the way for AIs like Watson on Jeopardy!, AlphaGo, and Dota 2 — increasingly complex systems that still existed within the framework of games.

On February 2nd, 2011, days after Watson’s victory against Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, IBM sent out an email blast to their research labs around the world. “What’s The Next Grand Challenge After Watson?” the subject line read. Enter Noam Slonim, struggling sitcom writer in Haifa, Israel.

Slonim wanted to find out what happens when AI ventures away from games and into the more subjective realm of human discourse. So he proposed building an artificial intelligence that could argue with you. Over the course of a six year, IBM-backed effort, Slonim and his team built an AI that ultimately faced off against a debating world champion in San Francisco in February 2019.

The Debater documentary (official selection, 2020 Copenhagen International Documentary Festival) tells the story of an eclectic team of researchers taking AI into uncharted territory, and explores what it means to live in a world where AI helps us make better decisions — particularly in the era of fake news and ideology echo chambers.

Watch the film for a behind-the-scenes look at the technology — and of course, to see who wins this particular AI Grand Challenge.

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