TVs and radios blare that “artificial intelligence is coming,” and it will take your job and beat you at chess.
But AI is already here, and it can beat you — and the world’s best — at chess. In 2012, it was also used by Google to identify cats in YouTube videos. Today, it’s the reason Teslas have Autopilot and Netflix and Spotify seem to “read your mind.” Now, AI is changing the field of synthetic biology and how we engineer biology. It’s helping engineers design new ways to design genetic circuits — and it could leave a remarkable impact on the future of humanity through the huge investment it has been receiving ($12.3b in the last 10 years) and the markets it is disrupting.
The idea of artificial intelligence is relatively straightforward — it is the programming of machines with reasoning, learning, and decision-making behaviors. Some AI algorithms (which are just a set of rules that a computer follows) are so good at these tasks that they can easily outperform human experts.
Most of what we hear about artificial intelligence refers to machine learning, a subclass of AI algorithms that extrapolate patterns from data and then use that analysis to make predictions. The more data these algorithms collect, the more accurate their predictions become. Deep learning is a more powerful subcategory of machine learning, where a high number of computational layers called neural networks (inspired by the structure of the brain) operate in tandem to increase processing depth, facilitating technologies like advanced facial recognition (including FaceID on your iPhone).
Biology, in particular, is one of the most promising beneficiaries of artificial intelligence. From investigating genetic mutations that contribute to obesity to examining pathology samples for cancerous cells, biology produces an inordinate amount of complex, convoluted data. But the information contained within these datasets often offers valuable insights that could be used to improve our health.
In the field of synthetic biology, where engineers seek to “rewire” living organisms and program them with new functions, many scientists are harnessing AI to design more effective experiments, analyze their data, and use it to create groundbreaking therapeutics. Here are five companies that are integrating machine learning with synthetic biology to pave the way for better science and better engineering.