We are entering the era of the scientific robot | Technology

Science has transformed the reality we live in, but when you think about it, science is almost impossible to define. In general, scientists pay attention to aspects of reality that can be measured (but not always) and try to create more or less logical relationships between these aspects, which allows us to predict an event that we find interesting or useful, For example. the precise date of an eclipse, the forecast of tomorrow’s weather or even the effectiveness of a medication. There are many archetypes of scientists: physicist-theoreticians, biochemists, geologists, neuroscientists… Each studies or sheds light on certain aspects of reality using different techniques and paradigms. For me, the only possible definition at the moment is “science is what scientists do”.

As physicists we use, for example, intuition, mathematics, computer science, experiments, etc. in a process where discoveries are born from a mixture of prior knowledge, collaboration, competition, coincidences, brute force and even in some cases stubbornness in not abandoning an idea that everyone considers useless in your environment. Of course, science does not faithfully follow the so-called scientific method, which idealizes our messy activity as an algorithmic process, where models are formulated on the basis of hypotheses which are then validated, or refuted, by comparing them with real data .

Discovery arises haphazardly, hypotheses are abandoned, they are changed on the fly, the idea arises from unexpected places, especially as a reward for hard work and perseverance. In fact, these narratives of the scientific process as something ordered also promote the exploitation of those who do the hardest part of science, the endless hours in the lab of doctoral students, fellows, and researchers. postdocs in precarious working conditions. The complexity and hardness of the work are masked by intellectual, rational narratives about the scientific method.

Deciding whether something is respectable science is an even more complex process, a dialogue between scientists, society, politics, and history that decides whether or not something deserves to be recognized as science. Science is conservative, and coming up with new ideas that go beyond the narrow confines of what is accepted is normally a very uphill battle: the scientific journal Nature recently published a study that confirms that today, it is more difficult than ever to be a disruptive scientist. If you want to succeed as a scientist, be male, middle class, and, above all, go with the flow of what most scientists in your field are doing.

What we can say about science is that we place reason, logic, at the center of its activity. Doing science is an established way of asking how well logic describes reality. Two very important examples are the famous incompleteness theorems, on the limits of logic in arithmetic (demonstrated by Kurt Gödel in 1931) and the famous Turing machine (1936), which helps scientists understand the limits of algorithmic calculation, and which led to the arrival of digital computers.

It was precisely the arrival of digital computers, in the middle of the 20th century, which made it possible to study and apply logic in a more objective way, to understand its capacity to decipher aspects of reality and even to try to modify it in an automated manner. , using machines. It is therefore not surprising that scientific discoveries have been an important topic in artificial intelligence research since the 1960s. With the great development of AI over the past decade, this idea is starting to gain traction .

A few weeks ago, Hiroaki Kitano, robotics pioneer and currently CTO (head of technology department) at Sony, visited us at the Oxford physics department to give us a seminar on his project to create a robot capable of earn. Nobel Prize winner, what he calls the Nobel Turing Challenge. Its main thesis is that if manual, repetitive laboratory work can be automated, a scientific robot could test every conceivable hypothesis and rule out the false ones. Kitano proposes that these robots would eliminate the need for intuition and chance in research. Kitano’s robots would perform a scientific method based on brute force, capable of testing all the possibilities that an AI system can generate.

This is an interesting philosophical proposition, implying that these hypotheses can be explored in finite time, and perhaps underestimating how extremely resistant most scientific communities are to progress. It is probably because of this last point that this is something that will be tested, not only in Japan. On November 1, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), of the US Department of Defense, made public its new program Fundamental Models for Scientific Discovery, which aims to explore, develop and demonstrate an AI agent as an autonomous scientist. We are entering the era of the scientific robot.

As I listened to Kitano’s lecture, this kept coming to mind: Praise of shadows, an essay written by Junichiro Tanizaki in 1933. In this brilliant text, Tanizaki reflects on aesthetics at a time when Japan had already become a modern, industrialized country lit by electric light. Tanizaki reflects on how Westerners attempt to illuminate every aspect of reality with the light of progress “until the smallest crack, the last refuge of darkness is eliminated” and observes how the Japanese have also started to forget “shadow magic”. “.

Tanizaki invites us to think about whether this makes sense, to try to shed light on everything and thus give up “revealing the ambiguous universe where shadow and light merge”. I believe that faced with AI, we find ourselves in a situation similar to that of Tanizaki; With or without electric light, with or without robots, man’s deep relationship with reality is not only based on illuminating objects with reason, but also on entering the mysterious darkness, which in its immensity offers us endless possibilities. the rational treasures hidden in the shadows. It seems that we will soon be able to go in search of these treasures accompanied by scientific robots.

Sonia Contera She is Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and author of “Living Nanotechnology” (Arpa Editores, 2023).

You can follow EL PAÍS Technology In Facebook And X or sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.

Limited time special offer

Subscribe to continue reading

Read without limits