AI solves protein folding

Lots of news on the DeepMind announcement that it has solved the protein folding problem. From the NYT:

Computer scientists have struggled to build such a system for more than 50 years. For the last 25, they have measured and compared their efforts through a global competition called the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction, or C.A.S.P. Until now, no contestant had even come close to solving the problem.

DeepMind solved the problem with a wide range of proteins, reaching an accuracy level that rivaled physical experiments. Many scientists had assumed that moment was still years, if not decades, away.

“I always hoped I would live to see this day,” said John Moult, a professor at the University of Maryland who helped create C.A.S.P. in 1994 and continues to oversee the biennial contest. “But it wasn’t always obvious I was going to make it.”

London A.I. Lab Claims Breakthrough That Could Accelerate Drug Discovery

This is phenomenal and wonderful, but it is also an oracle into which we have limited insight. To quote a 2018 essay on AlphaZero:

Suppose that deeper patterns exist to be discovered — in the ways genes are regulated or cancer progresses; in the orchestration of the immune system; in the dance of subatomic particles. And suppose that these patterns can be predicted, but only by an intelligence far superior to ours. If AlphaInfinity could identify and understand them, it would seem to us like an oracle.

We would sit at its feet and listen intently. We would not understand why the oracle was always right, but we could check its calculations and predictions against experiments and observations, and confirm its revelations. Science, that signal human endeavor, would reduce our role to that of spectators, gaping in wonder and confusion.

Maybe eventually our lack of insight would no longer bother us. After all, AlphaInfinity could cure all our diseases, solve all our scientific problems and make all our other intellectual trains run on time. We did pretty well without much insight for the first 300,000 years or so of our existence as Homo sapiens. And we’ll have no shortage of memory: we will recall with pride the golden era of human insight, this glorious interlude, a few thousand years long, between our uncomprehending past and our incomprehensible future.