Now here’s something that might be about to remake the economy, or (on the other robotic hand) it might not be ready to just yet. And it might be able to help us out in drug R&D, or it might turn out to be mostly beside the point. What the heck am I talking about, you ask? The so-called “Artificial Intelligence Economy”. As Adam Ozimek says, things are looking a little more futuristic lately.
He’s talking about things like driverless cars and quadrotors, and Tyler Cowen adds the examples of things like Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson, as part of a wider point about American exports:
First, artificial intelligence and computing power are the future, or even the present, for much of manufacturing. It’s not just the robots; look at the hundreds of computers and software-driven devices embedded in a new car. Factory floors these days are nearly empty of people because software-driven machines are doing most of the work. The factory has been reinvented as a quiet place. There is now a joke that “a modern textile mill employs only a man and a dog—the man to feed the dog, and the dog to keep the man away from the machines.”
The next steps in the artificial intelligence revolution, as manifested most publicly through systems like Deep Blue, Watson and Siri, will revolutionize production in one sector after another. Computing power solves more problems each year, including manufacturing problems.
Two MIT professors have written a book called Race Against the Machine about all this, and it appears to be sort of a response to Cowen’s earlier book The Great Stagnation. (Here’s an article of theirs in The Atlantic making their case).
One of the export-economy factors that it (and Cowen) bring up is that automation makes a country’s wages (and labor costs in general) less of a factor in exports, once you get past the capital expenditure. And as the size of that expenditure comes down, it becomes easier to make that leap. One thing that means, of course, is that less-skilled workers find it harder to fit in. Here’s another Atlantic article, from the print magazine, which looked at an auto-parts manufacturer with a factory in South Carolina (the whole thing is well worth reading):
Before the rise of computer-run machines, factories needed people at every step of production, from the most routine to the most complex. The Gildemeister (machine), for example, automatically performs a series of operations that previously would have required several machines—each with its own operator. It’s relatively easy to train a newcomer to run a simple, single-step machine. Newcomers with no training could start out working the simplest and then gradually learn others. Eventually, with that on-the-job training, some workers could become higher-paid supervisors, overseeing the entire operation. This kind of knowledge could be acquired only on the job; few people went to school to learn how to work in a factory.
Today, the Gildemeisters and their ilk eliminate the need for many of those machines and, therefore, the workers who ran them. Skilled workers now are required only to do what computers can’t do (at least not yet): use their human judgment.
But as that article shows, more than half the workers in that particular factory are, in fact, rather unskilled, and they make a lot more than their Chinese counterparts do. What keeps them employed? That calculation on what it would take to replace them with a machine. The article focuses on one of those workers in particular, named Maddie:
It feels cruel to point out all the Level-2 concepts Maddie doesn’t know, although Maddie is quite open about these shortcomings. She doesn’t know the computer-programming language that runs the machines she operates; in fact, she was surprised to learn they are run by a specialized computer language. She doesn’t know trigonometry or calculus, and she’s never studied the properties of cutting tools or metals. She doesn’t know how to maintain a tolerance of 0.25 microns, or what tolerance means in this context, or what a micron is.
Tony explains that Maddie has a job for two reasons. First, when it comes to making fuel injectors, the company saves money and minimizes product damage by having both the precision and non-precision work done in the same place. Even if Mexican or Chinese workers could do Maddie’s job more cheaply, shipping fragile, half-finished parts to another country for processing would make no sense. Second, Maddie is cheaper than a machine. It would be easy to buy a robotic arm that could take injector bodies and caps from a tray and place them precisely in a laser welder. Yet Standard would have to invest about $100,000 on the arm and a conveyance machine to bring parts to the welder and send them on to the next station. As is common in factories, Standard invests only in machinery that will earn back its cost within two years. For Tony, it’s simple: Maddie makes less in two years than the machine would cost, so her job is safe—for now. If the robotic machines become a little cheaper, or if demand for fuel injectors goes up and Standard starts running three shifts, then investing in those robots might make sense.
At this point, some similarities to the drug discovery business will be occurring to readers of this blog, along with some differences. The automation angle isn’t as important, or not yet. While pharma most definitely has a manufacturing component (and how), the research end of the business doesn’t resemble it very much, despite numerous attempts by earnest consultants and managers to make it so. From an auto-parts standpoint, there’s little or no standardization at all in drug R&D. Every new drug is like a completely new part that no one’s ever built before; we’re not turning out fuel injectors or alternators. Everyone knows how a car works. Making a fundamental change in that plan is a monumental challenge, so the auto-parts business is mostly about making small variations on known components to the standards of a given customer. But in pharma – discovery pharma, not the generic companies – we’re wrenching new stuff right out of thin air, or trying to.
So you’d think that we wouldn’t be feeling the low-wage competitive pressure so much, but as the last ten years have shown, we certainly are. Outsourcing has come up many a time around here, and the very fact that it exists shows that not all of drug research is quite as bespoke as we might think. (Remember, the first wave of outsourcing, which is still very much a part of the business, was the move to send the routine methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile analoging out somewhere cheaper). And this takes us, eventually, to the Pfizer-style split between drug designers (high-wage folks over here) and the drug synthesizers (low-wage folks over there). Unfortunately, I think that you have to go the full reducio ad absurdum route to get that far, but Pfizer’s going to find out for us if that’s an accurate reading.
What these economists are also talking about is, I’d say, the next step beyond Moore’s Law: once we have all this processing power, how do we use it? The first wave of computation-driven change happened because of the easy answers to that question: we had a lot of number-crunching that was being done by hand, or very slowly by some route, and we now had machines that could do what we wanted to do more quickly. This newer wave, if wave it is, will be driven more by software taking advantage of the hardware power that we’ve been able to produce.
The first wave didn’t revolutionize drug discovery in the way that some people were hoping for. Sheer brute force computational ability is of limited use in drug discovery, unfortunately, but that’s not always going to be the case, especially as we slowly learn how to apply it. If we really are starting to get better at computational pattern recognition and decision-making algorithms, where could that have an impact?
It’s important to avoid what I’ve termed the “Andy Grove fallacy” in thinking about all this. I think that it is a result of applying first-computational-wave thinking too indiscriminately to drug discovery, which means treating it too much like a well-worked-out human-designed engineering process. Which it certainly isn’t. But this second-wave stuff might be more useful.
I can think of a few areas: in early drug discovery, we could use help teasing patterns out of large piles of structure-activity relationship data. I know that there are (and have been) several attempts at doing this, but it’s going to be interesting to see if we can do it better. I would love to be able to dump a big pile of structures and assay data points into a program and have it say the equivalent of “Hey, it looks like an electron-withdrawing group in the piperidine series might be really good, because of its conformational similarity to the initial lead series, but no one’s ever gotten back around to making one of those because everyone got side-tracked by the potency of the chiral amides”.
Software that chews through stacks of PK and metabolic stability data would be worth having, too, because there sure is a lot of it. There are correlations in there that we really need to know about, that could have direct relevance to clinical trials, but I worry that we’re still missing some of them. And clinical trial data itself is the most obvious place for software that can dig through huge piles of numbers, because those are the biggest we’ve got. From my perspective, though, it’s almost too late for insights at that point; you’ve already been spending the big money just to get the numbers themselves. But insights into human toxicology from all that clinical data, that stuff could be gold. I worry that it’s been like the concentration of gold in seawater, though: really there, but not practical to extract. Could we change that?
All this makes me actually a bit hopeful about experiments like this one that I described here recently. Our ignorance about medicine and human biochemistry is truly spectacular, and we need all the help we can get in understanding it. There have to be a lot of important things out there that we just don’t understand, or haven’t even realized the existence of. That lack of knowledge is what gives me hope, actually. If we’d already learned what there is to know about discovering drugs, and were already doing the best job that could be done, well, we’d be in a hell of a fix, wouldn’t we? But we don’t know much, we’re not doing it as well as we could, and that provides us with a possible way out of the fix we’re in.
So I want to see as much progress as possible in the current pattern-recognition and data-correlation driven artificial intelligence field. We discovery scientists are not going to automate ourselves out of business so quickly as factory workers, because our work is still so hypothesis-driven and hard to define. (For a dissenting view, with relevance to this whole discussion, see here). It’s the expense of applying the scientific method to human health that’s squeezing us all, instead, and if there’s some help available in that department, then let’s have it as soon as possible.