23 October 2020

John R. Quain

The second U.S. presidential debate of 2020 was more sedate than the first, with its whining, braying, and general frothing at the mouth. We all remember how the human moderator at the first rumble struggled to cut through to the actual issues that people care about, such as jobs, the environment, and stopping the pandemic. Could a cool and dispassionate artificial intelligence program do better?

Such an approach is already being attempted, in a limited way, by the event coordinators at Intelligence Squared U.S., a nonprofit group that holds debates on public policy topics ranging from nuclear power to the space race. Intelligence Squared has enlisted IBM’s Watson to use natural language processing to sift through thousands of audience questions, arguments, rants, and comments in their debates to distill the important ideas and issues people actually care about. Now that its debates have gone virtual, the group is using AI to manage what would otherwise be an unwieldy, raucous Q&A session of thousands of people in an online audience. And after just one debate earlier this month, entitled “It’s Time to Redistribute the Wealth,” it seems to be working.

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