The Economist

Artificial intelligence will help unpick the complexity of biology

IN A former leatherworks, just off the Euston Road in London, a hopeful firm is starting up. BenevolentAI’s main room is large and open-plan. In it, scientists and coders sit busily on benches, plying their various trades. The firm’s star, though, has a private, temperature-controlled office. That star is an Nvidia supercomputer. It runs the software which sits at the core of BenecolentAI’s busines, a piece artificial intelligence (AI) that that can process natural language and formulate new ideas from what it reads. Its job is to sift through vast chemical libraries and medical databases, as well as the scientific literature, looking for drug molecules to treat disease.

BenevolentAI is not a one-off, though. A growing number of people and companies think that AI is well placed to help unpick biology and advance human health. Indeed, there is a line of argument that living organisms themselves are just complicated bits of hardware and software. Chris Bishop, at Microsoft Research, in Cambridge, says biological processes can usefully be thought of as computational in nature. And that though has consequences. Whether it is the new Zuckerberg Chan Initiative (ZCI) from the founder of Facebook, or the work of bits of Google, IBM, or Microsoft, the new Big Idea is that the squidgy worlds of biology and disease are problems which Silicon Valley can solve. Already, scientists who use more traditional approaches are accusing the newcomers of arrogance.