In one day, the laws of motion from a pendulum’s swings was calculate by a powerful computer program – a feat that took physicists centuries to complete. The Computer Program, developed by Cornell researchers, deduced the natural laws without a shred of knowledge about physics or geometry. The research is being called a breakthrough for science, where computers can calculate massive datasets that are too complex for the human mind.
Hod Lipson, the Cornell University computational researcher who co-wrote the program, said “One of the biggest problems in science today is moving forward and finding the underlying principles in areas where there is lots and lots of data, but there’s a theoretical gap. We don’t know how things work. I think this is going to be an important tool.”
This breakthrough could foreshadow an age where scientists and programs work as equals to decipher datasets too complex for human analysis. The idea of using computers for scientific task is a breakthrough initself. Half a century ago, IBM’s Herbert Gelmeter wrote a program that rediscovered Euclid’s geometry theorems, but critics said it relied too much on programmer-supplied rules. In 1980, The $100,000 Leibninz Prize was promised to the first program to discover a theorem that “profoundly affects” math; to this ay it has never been claimed. But now, artificial intelligence experts say Lipson may have fulfilled the elusive promise.
Unlike similar programs of the past, Cornell’s program is primed only with a set of simple, basic mathematical functions and the data it’s asked to analyze and can winnow possible explanations into a likely set. The program has so far been able to describe the movements of simple mechanical systems like spring-loaded oscillators, single pendulums and double pendulums and other mechanisms used by professors to illustrate physical laws.
Initially, the equations generated by the program failed to explain the data, but some failures were slightly less wrong than others. The program modified the most promising failures, tested them again, chose the best, and repeated the process until a set of equations evolved to describe the systems. Turns out, some of these equations were very familiar; including Newton’s second law of motion and the law of conservation of momentum. While the laws of motion discovered by the program are extremely simple, the principles of the program should work at higher scales.
The researchers have already applied the program to recordings of individuals’ physiological states and their levels of metabolites, the cellular proteins that collectively run our bodies but remain, molecule by molecule, largely uncharacterized — a perfect example of data lacking a theory. “The next step for the program will be to find ways in which we can try to explain these equations, correlate them with existing knowledge, try to break these things down into components for which we have clues.” Said Lipson.
Michael Atherton, a cognitive scientist recently predicted that computer intelligence would not soon supplant human artistic and scientific insight, and this new program could be a great tool to generate perspectives that might not be intuitive. However, “the creativity, expertise, and the recognition of importance is still dependent on human judgment.” Otherwise, humans are still important.