Will AI empower scientists or replace them?
Tue 8 Dec 2020 | Jamie Harris
Google’s DeepMind AI team solved a long-running biological problem
Scientists are not about to lose their jobs to more sophisticated artificial intelligence – instead it will help them work even better, an expert in the field has said following a Google breakthrough.
Last week, the tech giant’s DeepMind AI specialists based in the UK made a leap forward in solving one of biology’s biggest challenges, the five-decade-old protein folding problem.
Determining the structure of a protein opens up a world of possibilities, from understanding neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, to discovering new drugs.
The problem is there are so many and it takes time to understand them all – we have only managed to unfold a fraction of the millions of known proteins in living things.
But what does this mean for scientists going forward?
Like many jobs touched by technology, it does not mean their skills will no longer be needed, according to Dr Aldo Faisal, professor of AI and neuroscience at Imperial College London.
Instead it will cut down on mundane tasks, allow research to be carried out faster, and enable scientists to concentrate on more in-depth experiments.
“I think what we’re going to see is that AI is going to empower scientists, it’s not about replacing scientists, it’s about empowering them to be able to do more and effectively taking away the boring parts of the work so to speak that are routine and mundane and allowing them to move quicker, discover things faster and I think that’s one of the biggest appeals of AI,” Dr Faisal told the PA news agency.
“The protein folding and AlphaFold is beautiful because it shows that one can test hypotheses much, much quicker than with current conventional technologies about how protein folds and of course how protein folds tell us something about how they can function, interact and so this will basically save time and allow people to very quickly explore protein structures without having to do costly and slow great experiments.”
Although AI has been used to revolutionise science for several years, Dr Faisal said we are “seeing loads of other applications” arrive and he expects more to come.
For example, earlier this year a group of scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used AI to help them uncover new types of powerful antibiotics, capable of killing some of the world’s most problematic disease-causing bacteria.
“That was a very fortuitous discovery they made using AI and we’re seeing loads of other applications in understanding, basically, bringing together data about health care and environment and the context in which people live in relating that to the genes and the function of proteins inside their body,” Dr Faisal continued.
“Establishing these links, basically connecting healthcare data, connecting daily life data,
Written by Jamie Harris Tue 8 Dec 2020