After completing the AI debate — and presumably taking in all the relevant counterarguments — users are asked a second time to indicate their position on the initial question. Yuan's hypothesis was that participants would change their their original assessment after debating the issue. Ideally, participants would move toward a more moderate position, since that's what the AI agent is expressly programmed to encourage.
“The system is artificially intelligent in that it attempts to optimize for a certain outcome based on data,” Yuan said. “Specifically, the system tries to get users to either change their minds or become more moderate, and tries to prevent users from becoming more extreme. It does so by observing past users and building predictive models of how users will behave.”
But people can be weird.
“The punchline is that after the debate people tended to move toward the middle and toward the extremes,” Yuan said. “About 15 percent of users either changed their minds completely or moved towards the middle. But about 12 percent of users moved towards the extremes — they started out only moderately agreeing with the claim but ended up strongly agreeing with it.”
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Yuan says the 12 percent figure is likely a demonstration of the “backfire effect,” a concept in sociology that says people become more righteous about their opinions when confronted with arguments that challenge them.
Still, the Collective Debate project succeeds as a proof-of-concept demonstration that AI can potentially help bridge our deeply divided discourse — especially online. Yuan hopes that, eventually, the technology could have practical applications in law and conflict resolution.
“My goal in building this project was not necessarily to try to change anyone’s mind on an issue, but rather to try to help people see value in the other side’s position,” Yuan said. “The hope is that we could use this understanding to build technologies that enable more productive political discourse by telling people exactly what they need to hear in order to see the other side.”