AI has cracked a problem that stumped biologists for 50 years. It’s a huge deal.


DeepMind, an AI research lab that was bought by Google and is now an independent part of Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced a major breakthrough this week that one evolutionary biologist called “a game changer.”

“This will change medicine,” the biologist, Andrei Lupas, told Nature. “It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything.”

The breakthrough: DeepMind says its AI system, AlphaFold, has solved the “protein folding problem” — a grand challenge of biology that has vexed scientists for 50 years.

Proteins are the basic machines that get work done in your cells. They start out as strings of amino acids (imagine the beads on a necklace) but they soon fold up into a unique three-dimensional shape (imagine scrunching up the beaded necklace in your hand).

That 3D shape is crucial because it determines how the protein works. If you’re a scientist developing a new drug, you want to know the protein’s shape because that will help you come up with a molecule that can bind to it, fitting into it to alter its behavior. The trouble is, predicting which shape a protein will take is incredibly hard.

Every two years, researchers who work on this problem try to prove how good their predictive powers are by submitting a prediction about the shapes that certain proteins will take. Their entries are judged at the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction (CASP) conference, which is basically a fancy science contest for grown-ups.

By 2018, DeepMind’s AI was already outperforming everyone at CASP, provoking some melancholic feelings among the human researchers. DeepMind took home the win that year, but it still hadn’t solved the protein folding problem. Not even close.

Why this is a big deal for artificial intelligence

Over the past few years, DeepMind has made a name for itself by playing games. It has built AI systems that crushed pro gamers at strategy games like StarCraft and Go. Much like the chess matches between IBM’s Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov, these matches mostly served to prove that DeepMind can make an AI that surpasses human abilities.

Now, DeepMind is proving that it has grown up. It has graduated from playing video games to addressing scientific problems with real-world significance — problems that can be life-or-death.

The protein folding problem was a perfect thing to tackle. DeepMind is a world leader in building neural networks, a type of artificial intelligence loosely inspired by the neurons in a human brain. The beauty of this type of AI is that it doesn’t require you to preprogram it with a lot of rules. Just feed a neural network enough examples of something, and it can learn to detect patterns in the data, then draw inferences based on that.

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