In February, 2011, an Israeli computer scientist named Noam Slonim proposed building a machine that would be better than people at something that seems inextricably human: arguing about politics. Slonim, who had done his doctoral work on machine learning, works at an I.B.M. Research facility in Tel Aviv, and he had watched with pride a few days before as the company’s natural-language-processing machine, Watson, won “Jeopardy!” Afterward, I.B.M. sent an e-mail to thousands of researchers across its global network of labs, soliciting ideas for a “grand challenge” to follow the “Jeopardy!” project. It occurred to Slonim that they might try to build a machine that could defeat a champion debater. He made a single-slide presentation, and then a somewhat more elaborate one, and then a more elaborate one still, and, after many rounds competing against many other I.B.M. researchers, Slonim won the chance to build his machine, which he called Project Debater. Recently, Slonim told me that his only wish was that, when it was time for the actual debate, Project Debater be given the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Instead, it was given a recognizably robotic voice, less flexible and punctuated than Siri’s. A basic principle of robotics is that the machine shouldn’t ever trick human beings into thinking that they are interacting with any person at all, let alone one whom Esquire has twice named the “Sexiest Woman Alive.”

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