Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Machines doing actual science, not just lab work

Here's the press release: Robot scientist becomes first machine to discover new scientific knowledge

In an earlier posting, I discussed the idea of computers participating in the reasoning process of the scientific method. There are, as far as I can see, two fields that are applicable to this. One is machine learning, where a computer studies a body of data to find patterns in it. When done with statistical methods, this is called data mining. The other is automated reasoning such as is done with semantic web technology.

So I was quite interested to see the news story linked above. Researchers in the UK have connected a computer to some lab robotics and developed a system that was able to generate new scientific hypotheses about yeast metabolism, and then design and perform experiments to confirm the hypotheses.

This is important because there will always be limits to what human science can accomplish. Humans are limited in their ability to do research, requiring breaks, sleep, and vacations. Humans are limited in their ability to collaborate, because of personality conflicts, politics, and conflicting financial interests. Human talent and intelligence are limited; the Earth is not crawling with Einsteins and Feynmans.

That's obviously not to say that computers would have an unlimited capacity to do science. But their limits would be different, and their areas of strength would be different, and science as a combined effort between humans and computers would be richer and more fruitful than either alone.

I still think it's important to establish specifications for distributing this effort geographically. I would imagine it makes sense to build this stuff on top of semantic web protocols.

I like the idea that with computer assistance, scientific and medical progress might greatly accelerate, curing diseases (hopefully including aging) and offering solutions to perennial social problems like boom-and-bust economic cycles. Then we could all live in a sci-fi paradise.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Obama talks about trains

I voted for Obama. It's great that he's the first black president, but it's not the most important thing to me. It's gratifying that he represents a big change from the previous administration. But for me, the real thing with Obama is, every time I hear him talk, he sounds like he's actually thinking. You sometimes see him pausing to think during press conferences. It's been so long overdue to have somebody in the White House who can sustain a thought process. So every time I hear him talk, I get another little bump of good feeling about him. Thank goodness he shares so many of my values; in the other camp he'd be a significant danger.

I don't know whether his economic policies will succeed. I hope so.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
— Theodore Roosevelt
Alright, enough gushing. But I really do love having this guy as my president.

A few days ago, Obama and Biden presented a vision of the future of railroads in America. I think it's pretty damn cool. I live in the Northeast Corridor where train service is the best in the country, and I haven't taken the train anywhere since college thirty-mumble years ago. I'm not a big train enthusiast. But I think this is the kind of thing that can stimulate national enthusiasm, not in a trivial meaningless way, but toward a goal that creates jobs and opportunities for new businesses that create more jobs.