“Hello, Noa. We meet again. And for the first time in front of a non-IBM audience. I’ve been told it helps to take a deep breath. But unfortunately, I cannot do that.”

The setting is a competitive debate being held at Watson West, IBM’s AI outpost in San Francisco’s tech-centric SOMA neighborhood. Noa is Noa Ovadia, a champion debater from Israel. The speaker greeting her is her opponent—whose inability to breathe deeply makes perfect sense given that it’s a piece of software, generating Siri-like female speech that  emanates from a human-sized black column with a screen on its front.

This is indeed the first time that the software in question, Project Debater, has shown its stuff outside of secret trial runs. Since 2012, IBM Research has been teaching it to debate humans on a vast array of subjects—making it a successor to Deep Blue (which beat Garry Kasparov in a six-game chess match in 1997) and Watson (which won a Jeopardy tournament against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in 2011).

IBM’s Project Debater and competitive debater Dan Zafrir face off. [Photo: courtesy of IBM Research]

On Monday afternoon in San Francisco, Project Debater argued in favor of government subsidies for space exploration while Ovadia made the case against them. The software then took on another Israeli debater, Dan Zafrir, on the topic of increased investment in telemedicine. (Project Debater was for it; Zafrir was against.) Throughout, it was obvious that Project Debater is a work in progress. But the AI scored some points, appeared to understand the gist of its opponents’ arguments well enough to respond to…