Sunday, January 17, 2010

Foresight Institute conference, Jan 16 and 17, 2010

The Foresight conference is just winding down. The talks were live-blogged over at NextBigFuture by Brian Wang who did a good job of concisely capturing the essentials. My own favorite talk was by Hod Lipson, who talked about a number of things, including something I find fascinating, the automation of science, about which I plan to blog more frequently.

I blogged too briefly in the past about the Adam project, but it deserves more. Reported in April 2009 by Ross King at Aberystwyth University. It used lab automation to perform experiments, and data mining to find patterns in the resulting data. Adam developed novel genomics hypotheses about S. cerevisiae yeast and tested them. Adam's conclusions were manually confirmed by human experimenters, and found to be correct. This was the first instance in human history where a machine discovered new scientific knowledge without human oversight.

Here is what I want to see computers doing in the coming years.
  • Look for patterns in data -- data mining
  • Propose falsifiable hypotheses
  • Design experiments to test those hypotheses
  • Perform the experiments and collect data
  • Confirm or deny hypotheses
  • Mine new data for new patterns, repeat the process
In the longer term, I want to see machine theoreticians and experimetalists collaborate with their human counterparts, both working in a scientific literature that is readable and comprehensible for both. This will require the development of a machine-parseable ontology (ideally a widely recognized standard) for sharing elements of the scientific reasoning process: data sets, hypotheses, predictions, deduction, induction, statistical inference, and the design of experiments.

So why do I want all this stuff? For one thing, it's interesting. For another, I am approaching the end of my life and I want to see scientific progress (and particularly medical progress) accelerate considerably in my remaining years. Finally, this looks to me like something where I can make some modestly valuable contribution to humanity with the time and energy I have left.

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