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theguardian.com 9/1/2022 Are we witnessing the dawn of post-theory science? Does the advent of machine learning mean the classic methodology of hypothesise, predict and test has had its day? by Laura Spinney
In 2008, Chris Anderson, the then editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, predicted its demise. So much data had accumulated, he argued, and computers were already so much better than us at finding relationships within it, that our theories were being exposed for what they were – oversimplifications of reality. Soon, the old scientific method – hypothesise, predict, test – would be relegated to the dustbin of history. We’d stop looking for the causes of things and be satisfied with correlations. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that what Anderson saw is true (he wasn’t alone). The complexity that this wealth of data has revealed to us cannot be captured by theory as traditionally understood. “We have leapfrogged over our ability to even write the theories that are going to be useful for description,” says computational neuroscientist Peter Dayan, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany. “We don’t even know what they would look like.”
But Anderson’s prediction of the end of theory looks to have been premature – or maybe his thesis was itself an oversimplification. There are several reasons why theory refuses to die, despite the successes of such theory-free prediction engines as Facebook and AlphaFold. All are illuminating, because they force us to ask: what’s the best way to acquire knowledge and where does science go from here?
The first reason is that we’ve realised that artificial intelligences (AIs), particularly a form of machine learning called neural networks, which learn from data without having to be fed explicit instructions, are themselves fallible. Think of the prejudice that has been documented in Google’s search engines and Amazon’s hiring tools.The second is that humans turn out to be deeply uncomfortable with theory-free science. We don’t like dealing with a black box – we want to know why.
And third, there may still be plenty of theory of the traditional kind – that is, graspable by humans – that usefully explains much but has yet to be uncovered.
So theory isn’t dead, yet, but it is changing – perhaps beyond recognition. “The theories that make sense when you have huge amounts of data look quite different from those that make sense when you have small amounts,” says Tom Griffiths, a psychologist at Princeton University.
Griffiths has been using neural nets to help him improve on existing theories in his domain, which is human decision-making. A popular theory of how people make decisions when economic risk is involved is prospect theory, which was formulated by behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s (it later won Kahneman a Nobel prize). The idea at its core is that people are sometimes, but not always, rational.
n Science last June, Griffiths’s group described how they trained a neural net on a vast dataset of decisions people took in 10,000 risky choice scenarios, then compared how accurately it predicted further decisions with respect to prospect theory. They found that prospect theory did pretty well, but the neural net showed its worth in highlighting where the theory broke down, that is, where its predictions failed.
These counter-examples were highly informative, Griffiths says, because they revealed more of the complexity that exists in real life. For example, humans are constantly weighing up probabilities based on incoming information, as prospect theory describes. But when there are too many competing probabilities for the brain to compute, they might switch to a different strategy – being guided by a rule of thumb, say – and a stockbroker’s rule of thumb might not be the same as that of a teenage bitcoin trader, since it is drawn from different experiences.
“We’re basically using the machine learning system to identify those cases where we’re seeing something that’s inconsistent with our theory,” Griffiths says. The bigger the dataset, the more inconsistencies the AI learns. The end result is not a theory in the traditional sense of a precise claim about how people make decisions, but a set of claims that is subject to certain constraints. A way to picture it might be as a branching tree of “if… then”-type rules, which is difficult to describe mathematically, let alone in words.
The final objection to post-theory science is that there is likely to be useful old-style theory – that is, generalisations extracted from discrete examples – that remains to be discovered and only humans can do that because it requires intuition. In other words, it requires a kind of instinctive homing in on those properties of the examples that are relevant to the general rule. One reason we consider Newton brilliant is that in order to come up with his second law he had to ignore some data. He had to imagine, for example, that things were falling in a vacuum, free of the interfering effects of air resistance.
In Nature last month, mathematician Christian Stump, of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, called this intuitive step “the core of the creative process”. But the reason he was writing about it was to say that for the first time, an AI had pulled it off. DeepMind had built a machine-learning program that had prompted mathematicians towards new insights – new generalisations – in the mathematics of knots.
In 2022, therefore, there is almost no stage of the scientific process where AI hasn’t left its footprint. And the more we draw it into our quest for knowledge, the more it changes that quest. We’ll have to learn to live with that, but we can reassure ourselves about one thing: we’re still asking the questions. As Pablo Picasso put it in the 1960s, “computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”