Once upon a time, Albert Einstein described scientific theories as “free inventions of the human mind.” But in 1980, Stephen Hawking, the renowned Cambridge University cosmologist, had another thought. He argued that the so-called Theory of Everything might be achievable, but that the final touches on it were likely to be done by computers.
The Theory of Everything is still not in sight, but with computers taking over many of the chores in life, it is not so crazy to imagine them taking over from the Hawkings and the Einsteins of the world. Computer programs like DeepMind’s AlphaGo keep discovering new ways to beat humans at games like Go and chess, which have been studied and played for centuries. Why couldn’t one of these marvellous learning machines, let loose on an enormous astronomical catalogue or the petabytes of data compiled by the Large Hadron Collider, discern a set of new fundamental particles or discover a wormhole to another galaxy in the outer solar system, like the one in the movie Interstellar?
At least that’s the dream. To think otherwise is to engage in what the physicist Max Tegmark calls “carbon chauvinism”. In November, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Tegmark is a professor, cashed a check from the National Science Foundation, and opened the metaphorical doors of the new Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions.
The institute is one of seven set up by the foundation and the US Department of Agriculture as part of a nationwide effort to galvanise work in artificial intelligence.
The MIT-based institute, directed by Jesse Thaler, a particle physicist, is the only one specifically devoted to physics. It includes more than two dozen scientists, from all areas of physics, from MIT, Harvard, Northeastern University and Tufts.
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