Shaping the world : Shaping the future. Artificial intelligence offers help in designing drugs, cleaning up all that plastic, and in the next century or so, just about everything else. 

Some scientists have compared DeepMind's new database with the Human Genome Project. Completed in 2003, the Human Genome Project provided a map of all human genes.

DeepMind has provided a map of the roughly 20,000 proteins expressed by the human genome - another step toward understanding how our bodies work and how we can respond when things go wrong.

'' Artificial intelligence can do useful things amid the complexity of the real world,'' said Jack Clark, one of the authors of the A.I. Index, an effort to track the progress of artificial intelligence technology across the globe.

As Dr. McGeehan discovered, it can be remarkably accurate. AlphaFold can predict the shape of a protein with an accuracy that rivals physical experiment about 63 percent of the time, according to independent benchmark tests that compare its predictions with known protein structures.

Most experts had assumed that a technology this powerful was still many, many  years away.

'' I thought it would take another 10 years,'' said Randy Read, a professor at the University of Cambridge. ''This was a complete change.''

But the system's accuracy does vary, so some of the predictions in DeepMind's data base comes with a  ''confidence score'' indicating how accurate it is likely to be. DeepMind researchers estimate that the system provides a ''good'' prediction about 95 percent of the time.

As a result, the system cannot completely replace physical experiments. It is used alongside work on the lab bench, helping scientists determine which experiments they should run and filling the gaps when experiments are unsuccessful.

Using AlphaFold, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder recently helped identify a protein structure they had struggled to identify for more than a decade.

The developers of  DeepMind have chosen to freely share its database of protein structures rather than sell access, with the hope of stimulating progress across the biological sciences.

''We are interested in maximum impact,'' said Demis Hassabis, the chief executive and co-founder of DeepMind, which is owned by the same parent company as Google.

All through, the hope is that the technology will continue to evolve.

A lab at the University of Washington has built a similar system called RoseTTAFold, and like the DeepMind scientists, it has openly shared the computer code that drives its system. Anyone can use the technology and data, AlphaFold was feeding a wide range of projects.

University of Colorado researchers are using the technology to understand how bacteria like E, coli and salmonella develop a resistance to antibiotics and to develop ways of combating this resistance. At the University of California, San Francisco, researchers have used the tool to improve their understanding of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus wreaks havoc on the body through 26 different proteins. With help from AlphaFold, the researchers have improved their understanding of one key protein and are hoping the technology can help increase their understanding of the other 25.

If this comes too late to have an impact on the current pandemic, it could help in preparing for the next one.

The possibilities are myriad. After DeepMind gave Dr. McGeehan shapes for seven enzymes that could potentially rid the world of plastic waste, he sent the lab a list of 93 more. ''They're working on these now,'' he said.

The World Students Society thanks author Cade Metz.


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