Monday, October 17, 2016

Bringing more AI into synthetic biology

Much of my work in synthetic biology has been founded on the importation of knowledge and methods from artificial intelligence. I want to encourage others from that background to get into the act too, since I think it will be beneficial to all involved---as long as there is sufficient listening.

People often think about artificial intelligence as being about stuff like robots and foul-mouthed chat-bots, but it's much wider and deeper than that.  For example, much early work on programming languages was considered an AI problem of "automatic programming."  In fact, one of the common complaints of AI researchers is that as soon as AI has solved a problem, it gets classified as "not really artificial intelligence" simply because the solution is now understood. 

So what are the skills and capabilities of artificial intelligence, that it can bring to other fields? My colleagues Fusun Yaman and Aaron Adler started this discussion in earnest with a talk at AAAI a couple of years ago: "How can AI help Synthetic Biology?", following this up with a paper on "Managing Bioengineering Complexity with AI Techniques" and a workshop last year on "AI for Synthetic Biology" at IJCAI, one of the main conferences in the field. It turns out that, building on core areas like knowledge representation, machine learning, planning and reasoning, robotics, etc, there are, in fact, a great wealth of possibilities for AI applications in synthetic biology, from data integration to protocol automation, from laboratory management to modeling, and many more. 

The main challenges are, more than anything else, friction at the interface between fields and getting people to listen well enough to understand which problems are useful to solve (so the AI practitioners aren't too naive about biological realities) and what types of things AI can realistically contribute (so the biologists don't view it as either magic or "just data processing").  My experience has been that it's heavy going to get connected (as is generally the case for interdisciplinary research), but that the opportunities are great, and I encourage my fellow practitioners come and get involved.
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