Artificial Intelligence Solves 50-Year-Old Biology 'Grand Challenge' Decades Before Experts Predicted

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This is a Significant moment for AI

A long-standing and incredibly complex scientific problem concerning the structure and behaviour of proteins has been effectively solved by a new artificial intelligence (AI) system, scientists report.

DeepMind, the UK-based AI company, has wowed us for years with its parade of ever-advancing neural networks that continually trounce humans at complex games such as chess and Go.

All those incremental advancements were about much more than mastering recreational diversions, however.

In the background, DeepMind's researchers were seeking to coax their AIs towards solving much more fundamentally important scientific puzzles – such as finding new ways to fight disease by predicting infinitesimal but vitally important aspects of human biology.

Now, with the latest version of their AlphaFold AI engine, they seem to have actually achieved this very ambitious goal – or at least gotten us closer than scientists ever have before.

For about 50 years, researchers have strived to predict how proteins achieve their three-dimensional structure, and it's not an easy problem to solve.

The astronomical number of potential configurations is so mind-bogglingly huge, in fact, that researchers postulated it would take longer than the age of the Universe to sample all the possible molecular arrangements.

Nonetheless, if we can solve this puzzle – known as the protein-folding problem – it would constitute a giant breakthrough in scientific capabilities, vastly accelerating research endeavours in things like drug discovery and modelling disease, and also leading to new applications far beyond health.

 

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