Tim Smith-Laing in More Intelligent Life:
The internet has for some time hummed with anxious murmuring about the Singularity. The rate of technological progress is accelerating exponentially; the Singularity refers to the moment when computers have become so smart that they escape our control and eventually become super-intelligences capable of stamping out humans like so much vermin. Those tuned into news of the coming catastrophe keep a beady eye on IBM, whose scientists are doing all they can to ensure their own survival as obsequious quislings to our future mechanical overlords. On Tuesday, the company announced that it had brought us one step closer to “real AI” (an intelligence as smart as a human) with its snappily named Project Debater: a supercomputer dedicated to the art of competitive debating. After years of research, this week it finally competed against two real-life human debaters. The result? A thumping one-all draw – according to an audience that I suspect was almost entirely made up of people who thought that HAL, the genial yet murderous computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, was the real hero of the film.
It was not quite John Henry versus the steam hammer. Even as IBM’s press office trumpeted the passing of another milestone on the road to true AI, one of the researchers offered the more-understated claim that Project Debater had managed to do something “sort of like what a human does when debating”. In fanfare terms, that is like hearing the Twentieth-Century Fox theme tune played on a kazoo. Most editors, even in the tech press, reached for their Brief-Recycled-Thinkpiece-on-the-End-of-Man button and left it at that. A good chunk of the rest of the internet just kept repeating the phrase “master debater”, as if it were actually a pun.
It is undeniably impressive, though. Set aside for the moment the following facts: that Project Debater is called Project Debater, that it manifests as a black monolith emitting the gentle, affectless tones of a child-killing psychopath, and that its “thinking face” is an animated set of gently bouncing blue balls. Ignore these, and you are left with a machine that can argue with a real human in real time. The hot topics at issue were the questions of whether “we should subsidise space exploration” and whether “we should increase the use of telemedicine”. It’s not clear what investment Project Debater was meant to have in either.