March 1st, 2013
|01:49 am - The coming end of (human) science|
Six and a half years ago, I made this post about the limits of human knowledge and the end of science, because eventually we would reach the limits of our understanding. I didn't think of another stranger option, one that is in the very earliest stages of happening now.
Then, two years ago, Hod Lipson and Michael Schmidt announced the first stirrings of robotic thinking. Lipson, a computer science professor at Cornell, and Schmidt, then a graduate student in Lipson’s lab, created a computer program that, given a raft of data from physical systems, can describe the natural laws that apply to that system. When they fed their software the motion-capture coordinates of a swinging double pendulum, the machine pondered the data for a couple days, then spat out the Hamiltonian equation describing the motion of such a system—an equation that represents the physical law known as conservation of energy. Their software needed no prior knowledge to discover this law. It wasn’t familiar with gravity, energy, geometry, or anything else. It simply did what human scientists have done since the time of Newton. It looked at the world, came up with theories about how it works, tested them, and then produced a law. Now, things like this are an extreme rarity, a mathematic proof here, a discovery about bacteria there... However, both computers and software will be noticably better in 5 years, and quite a bit better in 10 or 15 years. Already, in a test of 500 patients, software similar to Waston was better at diagnosing these patients than human doctors.
Lipson and Schmidt called their program Eureqa, and they made it available for free on the Web. It has since yielded several new discoveries in a range of fields, discovering scientific laws that we’d never known. Lipson and Schmidt recently worked with Gurol Suel, a molecular biophysicist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, to look at the dynamics of a bacterium cell. Given data about several different biological functions within the cell, the computer did something mind-blowing. “We found this really beautiful, elegant equation that described how the cell worked, and that tended to hold true over all of our new experiments,” Schmidt says. There was only one problem: The humans had no idea why the equation worked, or what underlying scientific principle it suggested. It was, Schmidt says, as if they’d consulted an oracle
Once again I'm, thinking of Charle's Stross excellent recent novel Rule 34. In the novel, there were no conscious AIs, but computers were still increasingly taking control of human lives. We're not there yet, but once again, I suspect that 2020 and beyond will be amazing in a host of exceedingly subtle but profound ways. Such is modern life and modern technology.
Now I know what I want a summer intern to do! I wonder if I can still get one (I missed the deadline, but...). I would love to feed all our CMOP data to an installation of Eureqa.
Hmmm...maybe this will mean that most humans will become obsolete.