Biotech & Health

AI proves a dab hand at pure mathematics and protein hallucination


A knot and a drawing of a complex polyhedron on graph paper.
Image Credits: DeepMind

One of the reasons artificial intelligence is such an interesting field is that pretty much no one knows what it might turn out to be good at. Two papers by leading labs published in the journal Nature today show that machine learning can be applied to tasks as technically demanding as protein generation and as abstract as pure mathematics.

The protein thing may not sound like much of a surprise given the recent commotion around AI’s facility in protein folding, as demonstrated by Google’s DeepMind and the University of Washington’s Baker Lab, not coincidentally also the ones who put out the papers we’re noting today.

The study from the Baker Lab shows that the model they created to understand how protein sequences are folded can be repurposed to essentially do the opposite: create a new sequence meeting certain parameters and which acts as expected when tested in vitro.

This wasn’t necessarily obvious — you might have an AI that’s great at detecting boats in pictures but can’t draw one, for instance, or an AI that translates Polish to English but not vice versa. So the discovery that an AI built to interpret the structure of proteins can also make new ones is an important one.

There has already been some work done in this direction by various labs, such as ProGen over at SalesForce Research. But Baker Lab’s RoseTTAFold and DeepMind’s AlphaFold are way out in front when it comes to accuracy in proteomic predictions, so it’s good to know the systems can turn their expertise to creative endeavors.

Researchers match DeepMind’s AlphaFold2 protein folding power with faster, freely available model

AI abstractions

Meanwhile, DeepMind captured the cover of Nature with a paper showing that AI can aid mathematicians in complex and abstract tasks. The results won’t turn the math world on its head, but they are truly novel and truly due to the help of a machine learning model, something that has never happened before.

The idea here relies on the fact that mathematics is largely the study of relationships and patterns — as one thing increases, another decreases, say, or as the faces of a polyhedron increase, so too does the number of its vertices. Because these things happen according to systems, mathematicians can arrive at conjectures about the exact relationship between those things.

Some of these ideas are simple, like the trigonometry expressions we learned in grade school: It’s a fundamental quality of triangles that the sum of their internal angles adds up to 180 degrees, or that the sum of the squares of the shorter sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse. But what about for a 900-sided polyhedron in 8-dimensional space? Could you find the equivalent of a2 + b2 = c2 for that?

An example of the relationship between two complex qualities of knots: their geometry and algebraic signature. Image Credits: DeepMind

Mathematicians do, but there are limits to the amount of such work they can do, simply because one must evaluate many examples before one can be sure that a quality observed is universal and not coincidental. It is here, as a labor-saving method, that DeepMind deployed its AI model.

“Computers have always been good at spewing out data at a scale that humans can’t match but what is different [here] is the ability of AI to pick out patterns in the data that would have been impossible to detect on a human scale,” explained Oxford professor of mathematics Marcus du Sautoy in the DeepMind news release.

Now, the actual accomplishments made with the help of this AI system are miles above my head, but the mathematicians among our readers will surely understand the following, quoted from DeepMind:

Defying progress for nearly 40 years, the combinatorial invariance conjecture states that a relationship should exist between certain directed graphs and polynomials. Using ML techniques, we were able to gain confidence that such a relationship does indeed exist and to hypothesize that it might be related to structures known as broken dihedral intervals and extremal reflections. With this knowledge, Professor Williamson was able to conjecture a surprising and beautiful algorithm that would solve the combinatorial invariance conjecture.

Algebra, geometry, and quantum theory all share unique perspectives on [knots] and a long standing mystery is how these different branches relate: for example, what does the geometry of the knot tell us about the algebra? We trained an ML model to discover such a pattern and surprisingly, this revealed that a particular algebraic quantity — the signature — was directly related to the geometry of the knot, which was not previously known or suggested by existing theory. By using attribution techniques from machine learning, we guided Professor Lackenby to discover a new quantity, which we call the natural slope, that hints at an important aspect of structure overlooked until now.

The conjectures were borne out with millions of examples — another advantage of computation, that you can tell it to rigorously test your hypothesis without buying it pizza and coffee.

The DeepMind researchers and the professors mentioned above worked closely together to come up with these specific applications, so we’re not looking at a “universal pure math helper” or anything like that. But as Ruhr University Bochum’s Christian Stump notes in the Nature summary of the article, that it works at all is an important step toward such an idea.

“Neither result is necessarily out of reach for researchers in these areas, but both provide genuine insights that had not previously been found by specialists. The advance is therefore more than the outline of an abstract framework,” he wrote. “Whether or not such an approach is widely applicable is yet to be determined, but Davies et al. provide a promising demonstration of how machine-learning tools can be used to support the creative process of mathematical research.”

More TechCrunch

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

20 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

3 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

3 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies