AI Talk: Debater, silence and a volcano

April 16, 2021 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

This week’s AI Talk…

Debating with a machine

The New Yorker published an article this week which piqued my interest. It was about how IBM’s effort to create a program, dubbed Project Debater, that debates an actual person fared in an actual debate. This contest happened back in February 2019. IBM’s technical lead for this effort was Noam Slonim from Israel. All of IBM’s technical might was invested in this program—which was supposed to be a repeat of man vs. machine with machine intelligence winning—like their Jeopardy win in 2011.

Slonim and his team went about the task of creating a debating machine with analytical rigor. The machine learned by scouring millions of articles, sorting claims from evidence. The team categorized and programmed argumentation templates—standard ways of arguing about any topic. For instance, if you want to ban anything, pro would be social good, con would be black-market proliferation.

So, how did the debating machine fare against a real human debater? Harish Natarajan, a champion debater, took on the task of debating the machine. The topic? Are preschools worth the investment. The machine made a convincing argument, summarizing a number of relevant studies. Harish, on the other hand, argued if it was even the right question to debate and deflected by suggesting that if you have dollars for investment, there are lots of competing priorities. Human evaluators voted that Harish won. Did he?

Slonim’s biggest regret was that he didn’t get to mimic the voice of Scarlet Johansson (who provided the robot voice in the film “Her”)! Debating is personal and it is hard to be impressed by a robotic voice. Arthur Applbaum of Harvard’s Kennedy School opines that the format of the debate itself elevated technical merits over ethical ones. Slonim is now working on what arguments people make when opposing COVID-19 vaccination. His vision? A smartphone-based argument checker, not unlike a grammar checker, that will synthesize and present the pros and cons of every argument supported by real facts and not fantasy. That truly would be a great tool! (Maybe it could be compulsory reading for every pundit on news channels these days?)

In praise of silence

When browsing the Wall Street Journal section dubbed “Future of Everything” I came across an article which resonated with my beliefs. Silence, the article declared, can boost your health! Noise has not been particularly problematic for me, living in West Virginia with its lush forests and greenery, but for workers in big cities, it can be a different story.

One of the unintentional beneficial effects of the pandemic response has been a huge reduction in transportation noise. Significantly fewer cars, buses and planes means significantly less noise. Now that life is slowly returning to normal, it makes sense to dig into the impact of noise on health. Long-term exposure to noise (such as living close to airports) can increase risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease and reduce life span to boot. The solution (besides moving to West Virginia)? Well, there are many technological solutions being crafted. The University of Boston has developed 3D printed plastic material that can block 94 percent of sound frequencies. Another approach is to use a collection of speakers to emit noise that effectively cancels out ambient noise.

But let’s go back to the article in question about the benefits of silence. Just short periods of silence can boost the development of brain cells, decrease blood pressure and help one relax. Of course, this is not really surprising. Meditation, with its focus on silence and its benefits, has been a healthful practice for millennia and there are lots of apps supporting this practice now. One post-pandemic challenge will be rediscovering how to get to our own silent enclaves. Many urban planners have acknowledged the noise induced by urbanization, which has resulted in the creation of more urban green spaces to mitigate that noise. Perhaps our buses, cars, trains and planes will be engineered to reduce and eliminate noise from the inside and out. That will be good for everybody.

Volcano watching

I saw some spectacular video of the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland and it made me want to check out some volcanic history. One fact which caught me by surprise was how many different volcanoes are active at this point in time. You may have seen news about an eruption on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, but in reality there is activity all over the world.

It turns out drones are the perfect mechanism for capturing volcanoes and even the actual center where the eruption is happening. Apparently, the center of the Icelandic volcano is a balmy 1250 degrees Celsius, enough to vaporize anything in its proximity! One intrepid drone operator, Gardar Olafs, founder of, managed to capture the actual center of the volcano, sacrificing his drone in the process. Presumably he has more drones as the spectacular imagery in and around this active volcano continues!

I am always looking for feedback and if you would like me to cover a story, please let me know! Leave me a comment below or ask a question on my blogger profile page.

V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.

Listen to Juggy Jagannathan discuss AI on the ACDIS podcast.