AI’s rocky start
Google has created a maths AI that has already proved 1200 theorems. The modern field of artificial intelligence (AI) began in 1950 with Alan Turing’s landmark paper Computing machinery and intelligence, which outlined the principles of AI and proposed a test, now known as the Turing test, for establishing whether AI had been achieved. Although early researchers were confident that AI systems would soon be a reality, inflated promises and expectations led to the “AI Winter” in the 1970s, a phenomenon that sadly was repeated again, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a second wave of AI systems also disappointed.
A breakthrough of sorts came in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the development of machine learning, Bayes-theorem-based methods, which quickly displaced the older methods based mostly on formal reasoning. When combined with steadily advancing computer technology, a gift of Moore’s Law, practical and effective AI systems finally began to appear.
One highly publicized advance was the defeat of two champion contestants on the American quiz show “Jeopardy!” by an IBM-developed computer system named “Watson.” The Watson achievement was particularly impressive because it involved natural language understanding, i.e. the understanding of ordinary (and often tricky) English text. Legendary Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings conceded by writing on his tablet, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”
AlphaGo defeats the world’s champion Go players
The ancient Chinese game of Go is notoriously complicated, with strategies that can only be described in vague, subjective terms. For these reasons, many observers did not expect Go-playing computer programs to beat the best human players for many years, if ever. This pessimistic outlook changed abruptly in March 2016, when a computer program named “AlphaGo,” developed by researchers at DeepMind, a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), defeated Lee Se-dol, a South Korean Go master, 4-1 in a 5-game tournament. The DeepMind researchers further enhanced their program, which then in May 2017 defeated Ke Jie, a 19-year-old Chinese Go master thought to be the world’s best human Go player.
In an even more startling development, in October 2017, Deep Mind researchers developed from scratch a new program, called AlphaGo Zero, which was programmed only with the rules of Go and a simple reward function and then instructed to play games against itself. After just three days of training (4.9 million training games), the AlphaGo Zero program had advanced to the point that it defeated the earlier Alpha Go program 100 games to zero. After 40 days of training, AlphaGo Zero’s performance was as far ahead of champion human players as champion human players are ahead of amateurs. Additional details are available in an Economist article, a Scientific American article and a Nature article. See also this excellent New York Times analysis by mathematician Steven Strogatz.
Other recent AI achievements
AI systems are doing much more than defeating human opponents in games. Here are just a few of the current commercial developments:
- Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa smartphone-based voice recognition systems are now significantly improved over the earlier versions, and speaker systems incorporating them are rapidly becoming a household staple.
- Facial recognition has also come of age, with Facebook’s facial recognition API and, even more impressively, with Apple’s 3-D facial recognition hardware and software, which is built into the latest iPhones and iPads.
- Self-driving cars are already on the road, and 3.5 million truck driving jobs, just in the U.S., are at risk within the next ten years.
- AI-powered surgical robots may soon perform some procedures faster and more accurately than humans.
- The financial industry already relies on financial machine learning methods, and a huge expansion of these technologies is coming, possibly displacing thousands of highly paid workers.
- Other occupations likely to be impacted include package delivery drivers, construction workers, legal workers, accountants, report writers and salespeople.
For other examples and additional details see this earlier Math Scholar blog.
Computer discovery and proof of mathematical theorems
Perhaps AI systems might eventually succeed in occupations such as delivering packages, driving cars and trucks, automating financial operations and cooking hamburgers, but surely not that pinnacle of human intelligence, namely discovering and proving mathematical theorems?
In fact, computer programs that discover new mathematical identities and theorems are already a staple of the field known as experimental mathematics. Here is just a handful of the many computer-based discoveries that could be mentioned:
- A new formula for pi with the property that it permits one to rapidly calculate binary or hexadecimal digits of pi at an arbitrary starting position, without needing to calculate digits that came before.
- The surprising fact that if the Gregory series for pi is truncated to 10n/2 terms for some n, the resulting decimal value is remarkably close to the true value of pi, except for periodic errors that are related to the “tangent numbers.”
- Evaluations of Euler sums (compound infinite series) in terms of simple mathematical expressions.
- Evaluations of lattice sums from the Poisson equation of mathematical physics in terms of roots of high-degree integer polynomials.
- A new result for Mordell’s cube sum problem.
In most of the above examples, the new facts were found by numerical exploration on a computer, but only later proven rigorously, the old-fashioned way, by human efforts. So what about computers actually proving theorems?
Actually, this is also old hat at this point in time. Perhaps the best example is Thomas Hales’ 2003 proof of the Kepler conjecture, namely the assertion that the simple scheme of stacking oranges typically seen in a supermarket has the highest possible average density for any possible arrangement, regular or irregular. Hales’ original proof met with some controversy, since it involved a computation documented by 250 pages of notes and 3 Gbyte of computer code and data, so Hales and his colleagues entered the entire proof into a computer proof-checking program. In 2014 this process was completed and the proof was certified.
Google AI system proves over 1200 mathematical theorems
A new and remarkable development here is that several researchers at Google’s research center in Mountain View, California have now developed an AI theorem-proving program. Their program works with the HOL-Light theorem prover, which was used in Hales’ proof of the Kepler conjecture, and can prove, essentially unaided by humans, many basic theorems of mathematics. What’s more, they have provided their tool in an open-source release, so that other mathematicians and computer scientists can experiment with it.
The Google AI system was “trained” on a set of 10,200 theorems that the researchers had gleaned from several sources, including many sub-theorems of Hales’ proof of the Kepler conjecture. Most of these theorems were in the area of linear algebra, real analysis and complex analysis, but the Google researchers emphasize that their approach is very broadly applicable.
In the initial release, their software was able to prove 5919, or 58% of the training set. When they applied their software to a set of 3217 new theorems that it had not yet seen, it succeeded in proving 1251, or 38.9%. Not bad for a brand-new piece of software…
Mathematicians are already envisioning how this software can be used in day-to-day research. Jeremy Avigad of Carnegie Mellon University sees it this way:
You get the maximum of precision and correctness all really spelled out, but you don’t have to do the work of filling in the details. … Maybe offloading some things that we used to do by hand frees us up for looking for new concepts and asking new questions.
What will the future hold?
So where is all this heading? A recent Time article features an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil, who predicts an era, roughly in 2045, when machine intelligence will meet, then transcend human intelligence. Such future intelligent systems will then design even more powerful technology, resulting in a dizzying advance that we can only dimly foresee at the present time. Kurzweil outlines this vision in his book The Singularity Is Near.
Futurists such as Kurzweil certainly have their skeptics and detractors. Sun Microsystem founder Bill Joy is concerned that humans could be relegated to minor players in the future, if not extinguished. Indeed, in many cases AI systems already make decisions that humans cannot readily understand or gain insight into. But even setting aside such concerns, there is considerable concern about the societal, legal, financial and ethical challenges of such technologies, as exhibited by the current backlash against technology, science and “elites” today.
One implication of all this is that education programs in engineering, finance, medicine, law and other fields will need to be upgraded to train students in machine learning and AI techniques. Along this line, large technology firms such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are aggressively luring top AI talent, including university faculty, with huge salaries. But clearly the field cannot eat its seed corn in this way; some solution is needed to permit faculty to continue teaching while still participating in commercial work.
But one way or the other, intelligent computers are coming. Society must find a way to accommodate this technology, and to deal respectfully with the many people whose lives will be affected. But not all is gloom and doom. Mathematician Steven Strogatz envisions a mixed future:
Maybe eventually our lack of insight would no longer bother us. After all, AlphaInfinity could cure all our diseases, solve all our scientific problems and make all our other intellectual trains run on time. We did pretty well without much insight for the first 300,000 years or so of our existence as Homo sapiens. And we’ll have no shortage of memory: we will recall with pride the golden era of human insight, this glorious interlude, a few thousand years long, between our uncomprehending past and our incomprehensible future.