Can scientific discovery really be automated?

idea_sized-francis_bacon_viscount_st_alban_from_npg_2Science is in the midst of a data crisis. Last year, there were more than 1.2 million new papers published in the biomedical sciences alone, bringing the total number of peer-reviewed biomedical papers to over 26 million. However, the average scientist reads only about 250 papers a year. Meanwhile, the quality of the scientific literature has been in decline. Some recent studies found that the majority of biomedical papers were irreproducible.

The twin challenges of too much quantity and too little quality are rooted in the finite neurological capacity of the human mind. Scientists are deriving hypotheses from a smaller and smaller fraction of our collective knowledge and consequently, more and more, asking the wrong questions, or asking ones that have already been answered. Also, human creativity seems to depend increasingly on the stochasticity of previous experiences – particular life events that allow a researcher to notice something others do not. Although chance has always been a factor in scientific discovery, it is currently playing a much larger role than it should.

One promising strategy to overcome the current crisis is to integrate machines and artificial intelligence in the scientific process. Machines have greater memory and higher computational capacity than the human brain. Automation of the scientific process could greatly increase the rate of discovery. It could even begin another scientific revolution. That huge possibility hinges on an equally huge question: can scientific discovery really be automated?

Read the full article in Aeon

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