The Uselessness of Useful Knowledge

Maggie Chiang for Quanta Magazine: “Is artificial intelligence the new alchemy? That is, are the powerful algorithms that control so much of our lives — from internet searches to social media feeds — the modern equivalent of turning lead into gold? Moreover: Would that be such a bad thing?

According to the prominent AI researcher Ali Rahimi and others, today’s fashionable neural networks and deep learning techniques are based on a collection of tricks, topped with a good dash of optimism, rather than systematic analysis. Modern engineers, the thinking goes, assemble their codes with the same wishful thinking and misunderstanding that the ancient alchemists had when mixing their magic potions.

It’s true that we have little fundamental understanding of the inner workings of self-learning algorithms, or of the limits of their applications. These new forms of AI are very different from traditional computer codes that can be understood line by line. Instead, they operate within a black box, seemingly unknowable to humans and even to the machines themselves.

This discussion within the AI community has consequences for all the sciences. With deep learning impacting so many branches of current research — from drug discovery to the design of smart materials to the analysis of particle collisions — science itself may be at risk of being swallowed by a conceptual black box. It would be hard to have a computer program teach chemistry or physics classes. By deferring so much to machines, are we discarding the scientific method that has proved so successful, and reverting to the dark practices of alchemy?

Not so fast, says Yann LeCun, co-recipient of the 2018 Turing Award for his pioneering work on neural networks. He argues that the current state of AI research is nothing new in the history of science. It is just a necessary adolescent phase that many fields have experienced, characterized by trial and error, confusion, overconfidence and a lack of overall understanding. We have nothing to fear and much to gain from embracing this approach. It’s simply that we’re more familiar with its opposite.

After all, it’s easy to imagine knowledge flowing downstream, from the source of an abstract idea, through the twists and turns of experimentation, to a broad delta of practical applications. This is the famous “usefulness of useless knowledge,” advanced by Abraham Flexner in his seminal 1939 essay (itself a play on the very American concept of “useful knowledge” that emerged during the Enlightenment).

A canonical illustration of this flow is Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It all began with the fundamental idea that the laws of physics should hold for all observers, independent of their movements. He then translated this concept into the mathematical language of curved space-time and applied it to the force of gravity and the evolution of the cosmos. Without Einstein’s theory, the GPS in our smartphones would drift off course by about 7 miles a day…(More)”.