AlphaFold2 @ CASP14: “It feels like one’s child has left home.”

The past week was a momentous occasion for protein structure prediction, structural biology at large, and in due time, may prove to be so for the whole of life sciences. CASP14, the conference for the biennial competition for the prediction of protein structure from sequence, took place virtually over multiple remote working platforms. DeepMind, Google’s premier AI research group, entered the competition as they did the previous time, when they upended expectations of what an industrial research lab can do. The outcome this time was very, very different however. At CASP13 DeepMind made an impressive showing with AlphaFold but was ultimately within the bounds of the usual expectations of academic progress, albeit at an accelerated rate. At CASP14 DeepMind produced an advance so thorough it compelled CASP organizers to declare the protein structure prediction problem for single protein chains to be solved. In my read of most CASP14 attendees (virtual as it was), I sense that this was the conclusion of the majority. It certainly is my conclusion as well.

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AlphaFold @ CASP13: “What just happened?”

Update: An updated version of this blogpost was published as a (peer-reviewed) Letter to the Editor at Bioinformatics, sans the “sociology” commentary.

I just came back from CASP13, the biennial assessment of protein structure prediction methods (I previously blogged about CASP10.) I participated in a panel on deep learning methods in protein structure prediction, as well as a predictor (more on that later.) If you keep tabs on science news, you may have heard that DeepMind’s debut went rather well. So well in fact that not only did they take first place, but put a comfortable distance between them and the second place predictor (the Zhang group) in the free modeling (FM) category, which focuses on modeling novel protein folds. Is the news real or overhyped? What is AlphaFold’s key methodological advance, and does it represent a fundamentally new approach? Is DeepMind forthcoming in sharing the details? And what was the community’s reaction? I will summarize my thoughts on these questions and more below. At the end I will also briefly discuss how RGNs, my end-to-end differentiable model for structure prediction, did on CASP13.

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What Hinton’s Google Move Says About the Future of Machine Learning

Earlier this week TechCrunch broke the news that Google had acquired Geoff Hinton’s recently founded deep learning startup. Soon thereafter Geoff posted on his Google+ page an announcement confirming the news and his (part-time) departure to Google from the University of Toronto. From the details that have emerged so far, it appears that he will split his time between UoT and the Google offices in Toronto and Mountain View. What does Geoff’s move, and other recent higher profiles departures, say about the future of machine learning research in academia? A lot, I think.

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