Yes, DeepMind crunches the numbers – but is it really a magic bullet?

This morning’s Observer column:

The most interesting development of the week had nothing to do with Facebook or even Google losing its appeal against a €2.4bn fine from the European commission for abusing its monopoly of search to the detriment of competitors to its shopping service. The bigger deal was that DeepMind, a London-based offshoot of Google (or, to be precise, its holding company, Alphabet) was moving into the pharmaceutical business via a new company called Isomorphic Labs, the goal of which is grandly described as “reimagining the entire drug discovery process from first principles with an AI-first approach”.

Since they’re interested in first principles, let us first clarify that reference to AI. What it means in this context is not anything that is artificially intelligent, but simply machine learning, a technology of which DeepMind is an acknowledged master. AI has become a classic example of Orwellian newspeak adopted by the tech industry to sanitise a data-gobbling, energy-intensive technology that, like most things digital, has both socially useful and dystopian applications.

That said, this new venture by DeepMind seems more on the socially useful side of the equation. This is because its researchers have discovered that its technology might play an important role in solving a central problem in biology, that of protein folding.

Proteins are large, complex molecules that do most of the heavy lifting in living organisms…

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