Tag Archives: debate

Debate without demand? A Note on Project Debater

Harish Natarajan takes on Project Debater at an IBM event.

Debate without demand is shorthand for a set of qualms, concerns, and questions I have about the autonomous debating system — an AI called Project Debater that can engage in debate challenges with human beings — developed by researchers at IBM and discussed most recently in a March 17 article in Nature. A non-paywalled write up by Chris Reed and other press coverage of Project Debater does not settle these concerns.

I am unsure about nearly everything I want to say here (which is, by the way, something Project Debater cannot be), but the one thing I am prepared to say is that Project Debater looks like another AI parlor trick or corporate dog and pony show. To their credit, the IBM researchers recognize the problem. Here’s how they sum it up in their abstract:

We also highlight the fundamental differences between debating with humans as opposed to challenging humans in game competitions, the latter being the focus of classical ‘grand challenges’ pursued by the AI research community over the past few decades. We suggest that such challenges lie in the ‘comfort zone’ of AI, whereas debating with humans lies in a different territory, in which humans still prevail, and for which novel paradigms are required to make substantial progress.

While one writer claims Project Debater “is capable of arguing against humans in a meaningful way,” that seems like a real stretch, and it’s good to see the researchers behind the project do not seem ready to go that far.

I’d hold off for other reasons. Project Debater can argue for the proposition assigned to it in a structured debate game, but AI does not care about the argument it’s advancing; it has no reason to argue. And even more importantly it is not jointly committed with us to the activity of arguing. How could it be?

AI still has nothing to ask of us, nothing to demand, nothing we can recognize as a legitimate complaint. Those moral coordinations are reserved for persons. So the outcome of the debate does not matter to the AI debater; there are no life stakes for it. For this reason, the debate game looks morally empty. This is how Reed describes it:

Backed by its argumentation techniques and fuelled by its processed data sets, the system creates a 4-minute speech that opens a debate about a topic from its repertoire, to which a human opponent responds. It then reacts to its opponent’s points by producing a second 4-minute speech. The opponent replies with their own 4-minute rebuttal, and the debate concludes with both participants giving a 2-minute closing statement.

The same of course cannot be said for the real world consequences such debate games might have, or the efforts by these researchers and others to produce an argumentative AI. These experiments are fraught with moral complexity, peril, and maybe even some promise.

A Note on the Latest No-Platforming

There are currently a number of arguments being made on both sides of the question whether the no-platforming of Peter Tatchell constitutes censorship. I won’t say they are all good arguments; but I’d like to suggest there’s more at stake in all this than the speech rights of one very outspoken person. This thought was brought home to me by a turn of phrase in Jerry Coyne’s very thorough post on the Tatchell affair:

If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard.

Censorship might well have been the intended outcome of Fran Cowling’s childish refusal to take part in a debate with someone who had signed a letter defending the free speech of Germaine Greer and other writers whose views she found unsavory. I don’t know for certain that she meant to do anything other than stomp her feet in public (some people call this behavior “virtue signaling”) or if she had thought her actions all the way through.

All that involves very complicated questions about her intentions and so on, and it’s beside the simpler point I want to make. Before jumping into questions of what Cowling intended or what were the intended or unintended consequences of her actions, I suggest we pause to consider the simple fact that (as Coyne puts it, or almost puts it) Cowling broke an agreement. Full stop.

Of course, we make and break agreements all the time, sometimes reaching and then rescinding an agreement jointly with others, and sometimes in violation of commitments we’ve made, or without fulfilling the explicit or implicit terms of the agreement. It’s in making and breaking agreements where we come up against questions of what we owe each other.

In this instance, the breaking of the agreement could stand at least as much discussion as the censorship question or the question what Cowling hoped to accomplish by breaking the agreement. It’s not simply that Cowling broke or withdrew from the agreement she’d made to appear alongside Tatchell. He’s even said that he’s ok with that (“She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witchhunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”). It’s her denouncing him as a “racist and a transphobe” that really bothers him.

But there was a much much more basic agreement in place even before the invitation to either speaker was made, and that’s something like a shared commitment to debate, or the very idea that it’s worth talking things over and listening to what others have to say — as opposed to, say, might makes right or some equally ugly proposition. It’s hard to believe that this even needs saying: when we deny others who share a commitment to talking things over the standing to talk, we wrong them and invite all sorts of abuses against them and against ourselves.

This is one reason why Cowling’s actions appear to be unethical and dangerous even if it can be argued that they are not, as her supporters insist, a violation of Tatchell’s individual rights.