In the world of AI and biological sciences, this has to be one of the most significant times in the whole year; maybe even bigger. Google’s DeepMind has used artificial intelligence to solve one of the grandest problems of biological sciences. It has achieved the feat of predicting how proteins curl up from a linear chain of amino acids into 3D shapes. The complex curls of this chain carry out main mechanisms of life. The key to understanding these mechanisms of life lies with figuring out what the protein does.
The leading structural biologists and the organisers of the biennial protein-folding competition, Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction (CASP), recognised DeepMind’s AI system AlphaFold as a solution to this 50-year-old challenge. This is groundbreaking in many ways as this would pave the way for speeding up the creation of new medication. In the current context, this innovation would also mean that it would accelerate the research for COVID-19 vaccine.
Quite expectedly, the research community and other enthusiasts couldn’t keep calm and pretty much equivocally lauded this breakthrough innovation. We capture some of the reactions here.
Starting with the head honcho of DeepMind itself, Demis Hassabis who is the founder and CEO of DeepMind said that he was ‘thrilled’ about the prospect of this innovation has a significant impact on understanding diseases better and towards faster drug remediation. It is interesting to note that Hassabis, despite his company’s several previous breakthroughs in the AI-based gaming industry, has continually stressed the importance of utilising AI to understand the world better. In an interview, he had very popularly said, “solving intelligence, and then using that to solve everything else.”
Congratulating DeepMind’s innovation, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that AlphaFold would help understand the fundamentals of life and in solving a range of problems. Google had acquired DeepMind in 2014 by closing the deal for $525 million to have a stake in the potentially ‘world-changing’ research that smaller companies like DeepMind are undertaking.
The co-founder and chairman of CASP, Professor John Moult termed it as a ‘special moment.’
Prof Venki Ramakrishnan
Professor Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society also praised the innovation heavily. Inferring that it was a futuristic discovery, he said that it happened ‘decades before’ experts of the field would even predict it.
It must be noted that Ramakrishnan won a Nobel Prize in 2009, along with American biophysicist and biochemist Thomas Steitz and Israeli protein crystallographer Ada Yonath, for research in ribosomes’ atomic structure and their function.
The Office For Artificial Intelligence
This organisation oversees the implementation of the UK’s artificial intelligence strategy and is the secretariat to the UK AI Council commemorating the achievement. The Office called it a proud achievement for the UK’s AI capabilities and the entirety of the scientific community.
Former World Chess Champion and Russian Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov congratulated the team in a rather hilarious way. He wrote that he was glad the team was ‘leaving the chess players alone’ for some time. This sly remark is in context to DeepMind’s other offering AlphaZero, a system that teaches itself how to master the game of chess, from scratch.
Collison, the CEO of Stripe, tweeted to commend the innovation from DeepMind. Stripe is an American financial services company that offers payment processing software for e-commerce websites and apps. It is currently one of the highest valued startups in the world and is valued at $35 billion (as of 2019).
Dr Li, the inaugural Sequoia professor at Stanford University’s Computer Science Department, also tweeted to congratulate the team. Dr Li, former Google vice president, is also the founder of AI4All, which is a non-profit organisation that is educating budding AI technologists and thinkers.
The CEO of Geonomics England, which is a company under the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, called this development a ‘fantastic news’.
While the entire industry has been noticing the achievement of this groundbreaking innovation, entrepreneur and former CTO of Coinbase, Balaji S Srinivasan pointed out a few possible loopholes. He noted the fact that the full paper was not available as well as the possible error with respect to the NMR-derived structure. Srinivasan further scrutinised the research of AlphaFold as it is specific to the domain and not to the whole protein as yet.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, congratulated the team with a humble ‘Congrats!’
British geneticist Dr Adam Rutherford, in a series of tweets, called this innovation ‘incredibly important for fundamental biology.’
James Wang, a research analyst at ARK Invest, called this innovation as one of England’s major contributions to computer science since Babbage and Turing’s time.