Can a Computer Devise a Theory of Everything?

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

Once upon a time, Albert Einstein described scientific theories as “free inventions of the human mind.” But in 1980, Stephen Hawking, the renowned Cambridge University cosmologist, had another thought. In a lecture that year, he argued that the so-called Theory of Everything might be achievable, but that the final touches on it were likely to be done by computers. “The end might not be in sight for theoretical physics,” he said. “But it might be in sight for theoretical physicists.” The Theory of Everything is still not in sight, but with computers taking over many of the chores in life — translating languages, recognizing faces, driving cars, recommending whom to date — it is not so crazy to imagine them taking over from the Hawkings and the Einsteins of the world.

Computer programs like DeepMind’s AlphaGo keep discovering new ways to beat humans at games like Go and chess, which have been studied and played for centuries. Why couldn’t one of these marvelous learning machines, let loose on an enormous astronomical catalog or the petabytes of data compiled by the Large Hadron Collider, discern a set of new fundamental particles or discover a wormhole to another galaxy in the outer solar system, like the one in the movie “Interstellar”? At least that’s the dream. To think otherwise is to engage in what the physicist Max Tegmark calls “carbon chauvinism.” In November, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Tegmark is a professor, cashed a check from the National Science Foundation, and opened the metaphorical doors of the new Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions.

More here.