I’m traveling, so there’s a bit less time for blogging than usual. But I wanted to mention something that’s come up several times over the years, especially when new technologies are coming along. People ask me “Do you think that (such-and-such) is going to be important?” or “Can (technology X) really be as big a deal as it seems?” And when I answer those sorts of questions, I always have to start by clearing up what time frame we’re talking about.
That’s because I’m a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist. Consider, say, retrosynthesis software. There are some very interesting things going on in the field, but not all of these are commercial just yet. Right now, my impression of the available software is that it’s not wildly useful (although it’s still better than some people think it is). And it can be quite expensive – I’ve been told about some figures by correspondents for what some of these software packages are going for, and they ain’t cheap. So for the moment, no, I don’t think that this stuff has changed the world yet, and I also wonder if some of its commercial practitioners might not be pricing themselves out of what should be their market. So in the immediate term, I sound a bit pessimistic.
But. . .at the same time, I really don’t see much reason why such programs can’t work, or indeed why they shouldn’t. They’re getting more capable all the time, both in terms of the knowledge of the literature that they have available, their ability to apply that to a given problem, and even in the rate of improvement in both of those functions (second-order improvement!) We human chemists, on the other hand, are not improving at so noticeable a rate. If you could draw curves for both the average human chemist’s and the available machine’s competence in retrosynthetic analysis, I feel sure that the machine one would have a much greater slope. It will catch up with the human one and then surpass it, and I feel equally sure about that. So long term, I’m optimistic – if you call that optimistic, and your mileage may vary on that point!
The same goes for many other trends. If you tell me that we are eventually going to get better at predictive toxicology, to the point of making a real impact on the costs of clinical trials, I will agree with you (while not committing to a date for “eventually”). If you tell me that you have software for sale right now what will do this for us in great detail, I will reach into my pocket to make sure that my wallet is still secure, because I will take you for delusional at best and out to swindle me at worst. Toxicology is a very hard problem. I feel sure that we don’t as yet have the knowledge to make serious decisions in the field without going through the expensive, laborious, dangerous tasks of giving our compounds to animals, and then to humans. But could we have such knowledge at some point? Why not? We’re not violating any laws of physics – the prediction of toxic effects is a big, tough, multifactorial mess, but there’s no reason that I can see why it shouldn’t eventually give ground to us. It already has, you know – just not enough!
So if you’d like to maintain a reputation as both a dour skeptic and a wild-eyed enthusiast, that’s how to do it. At least, it’s worked for me. Both these things are dependent on the time frame involved.