The Sept. 16 issue of the Economist has two excellent articles: How artificial intelligence can revolutionise science and How scientists are using artificial intelligence. I pass on here some edited clips from the first of these articles. I also want to point to much less benign commentary on how AI is moving toward threatening the livelihoods of creators of music, art, and literature: The Internet Is About to Get Much Worse.
Could AI turbocharge scientific progress and lead to a golden age of discovery?
Some believe that AI can turbocharge scientific progress and lead to a golden age of discovery...Such claims provide a useful counterbalance to fears about large-scale unemployment and killer robots.
Many previous technologies have been falsely hailed as panaceas. The electric telegraph was lauded in the 1850s as a herald of world peace, as were aircraft in the 1900s; pundits in the 1990s said the internet would reduce inequality and eradicate nationalism...but there have been several periods in history when new approaches and new tools did indeed help bring about bursts of world-changing scientific discovery and innovation.
In the 17th century microscopes and telescopes opened up new vistas of discovery and encouraged researchers to favour their own observations over the received wisdom of antiquity, while the introduction of scientific journals gave them new ways to share and publicise their findings. The result was rapid progress in astronomy, physics and other fields, and new inventions from the pendulum clock to the steam engine—the prime mover of the Industrial Revolution.
Then, starting in the late 19th century, the establishment of research laboratories, which brought together ideas, people and materials on an industrial scale, gave rise to further innovations such as artificial fertiliser, pharmaceuticals and the transistor, the building block of the computer..the journal and the laboratory went further still: they altered scientific practice itself and unlocked more powerful means of making discoveries, by allowing people and ideas to mingle in new ways and on a larger scale. AI, too, has the potential to set off such a transformation.
Two areas in particular look promising. The first is “literature-based discovery” (LBD), which involves analysing existing scientific literature, using ChatGPT-style language analysis, to look for new hypotheses, connections or ideas that humans may have missed. LBD is showing promise in identifying new experiments to try—and even suggesting potential research collaborators.
The second area is “robot scientists”, also known as “self-driving labs”. These are robotic systems that use AI to form new hypotheses, based on analysis of existing data and literature, and then test those hypotheses by performing hundreds or thousands of experiments, in fields including systems biology and materials science. Unlike human scientists, robots are less attached to previous results, less driven by bias—and, crucially, easy to replicate.
In 1665, during a period of rapid scientific progress, Robert Hooke, an English polymath, described the advent of new scientific instruments such as the microscope and telescope as “the adding of artificial organs to the natural”. They let researchers explore previously inaccessible realms and discover things in new ways, “with prodigious benefit to all sorts of useful knowledge”. For Hooke’s modern-day successors, the adding of artificial intelligence to the scientific toolkit is poised to do the same in the coming years—with similarly world-changing results.