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On a dark night, away from city lights, the stars of the Milky Way can seem uncountable. Yet from any given location no more than 4,500 are visible to the naked eye. Meanwhile, our galaxy has 100–400 billion stars, and there are even more galaxies in the universe.
The numbers of the night sky are humbling. And they give us a deep perspective…on drugs.
Yes, this includes wow-the-stars-are-freaking-amazing-tonight drugs, but also the kinds of drugs that make us well again when we’re sick. The number of possible organic compounds with “drug-like” properties dwarfs the number of stars in the universe by over 30 orders of magnitude.
Next to this multiverse of possibility, the chemical configurations scientists have made into actual medicines are like the smattering of stars you’d glimpse downtown.
But for good reason.
Exploring all that potential drug-space is as humanly impossible as exploring all of physical space, and even if we could, most of what we’d find wouldn’t fit our purposes. Still, the idea that wonder drugs must surely lurk amid the multitudes is too tantalizing to ignore.
Which is why, Alex Zhavoronkov said at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine in San Diego last week, we should use artificial intelligence to do more of the legwork and speed discovery. This, he said, could be one of the next big medical applications for AI.
Dogs, Diagnosis, and Drugs
Zhavoronkov is CEO of Insilico Medicine and CSO of the Biogerontology Research Foundation. Insilico is one of a number of AI startups aiming to accelerate drug discovery with AI.
In recent years, Zhavoronkov said, the now-famous machine learning technique, deep learning, has made progress on a number of fronts. Algorithms that can teach themselves to play games—like DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero or Carnegie Mellon’s poker playing AI—are perhaps the most headline-grabbing of the bunch. But pattern recognition was the thing that kicked deep learning into overdrive early on, when machine learning algorithms went from struggling to tell dogs and cats apart to outperforming their peers and then their makers in quick succession.
[Watch this video for an AI update from Neil Jacobstein, chair of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Singularity University.]
In medicine, deep learning algorithms trained on databases of medical images can spot life-threatening disease with equal or greater accuracy than human professionals. There’s even speculation that AI, if we learn to trust it, could be invaluable in diagnosing disease. And, as Zhavoronkov noted, with more applications and a longer track record that trust is coming.
“Tesla is already putting cars on the street,” Zhavoronkov said. “Three-year, four-year-old technology is already carrying passengers from point A to point B, at 100 miles an hour, and one mistake and you’re dead. But people are trusting their lives to this technology.”
“So, why don’t we do it in pharma?”
Trial and Error and Try Again
AI wouldn’t drive the car in pharmaceutical research. It’d be an assistant that, when paired with a chemist or two, could fast-track discovery by screening more possibilities for better candidates.
There’s plenty of room to make things more efficient, according to Zhavoronkov.
Drug discovery is arduous and expensive. Chemists sift tens of thousands of candidate compounds for the most promising to synthesize. Of these, a handful will go on to further research, fewer will make it to human clinical trials, and a fraction of those will be approved.
The whole process can take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is a big data problem if ever there was one, and deep learning thrives on big data. Early applications have shown their worth unearthing subtle patterns in huge training databases. Although drug-makers already use software to sift compounds, such software requires explicit rules written by chemists. AI’s allure is its ability to learn and improve on its own.
“There are two strategies for AI-driven innovation in pharma to ensure you get better molecules and much faster approvals,” Zhavoronkov said. “One is looking for the needle in the haystack, and another one is creating a new needle.”
To find the needle in the haystack, algorithms are trained on large databases of molecules. Then they go looking for molecules with attractive properties. But creating a new needle? That’s a possibility enabled by the generative adversarial networks Zhavoronkov specializes in.
Such algorithms pit two neural networks against each other. One generates meaningful output while the other judges whether this output is true or false, Zhavoronkov said. Together, the networks generate new objects like text, images, or in this case, molecular structures.
“We started employing this particular technology to make deep neural networks imagine new molecules, to make it perfect right from the start. So, to come up with really perfect needles,” Zhavoronkov said. “[You] can essentially go to this [generative adversarial network] and ask it to create molecules that inhibit protein X at concentration Y, with the highest viability, specific characteristics, and minimal side effects.”
Zhavoronkov believes AI can find or fabricate more needles from the array of molecular possibilities, freeing human chemists to focus on synthesizing only the most promising. If it works, he hopes we can increase hits, minimize misses, and generally speed the process up.
Proof’s in the Pudding
Insilico isn’t alone on its drug-discovery quest, nor is it a brand new area of interest.
Last year, a Harvard group published a paper on an AI that similarly suggests drug candidates. The software trained on 250,000 drug-like molecules and used its experience to generate new molecules that blended existing drugs and made suggestions based on desired properties.
An MIT Technology Review article on the subject highlighted a few of the challenges such systems may still face. The results returned aren’t always meaningful or easy to synthesize in the lab, and the quality of these results, as always, is only as good as the data dined upon.
Stanford chemistry professor and Andreesen Horowitz partner, Vijay Pande, said that images, speech, and text—three of the areas deep learning’s made quick strides in—have better, cleaner data. Chemical data, on the other hand, is still being optimized for deep learning. Also, while there are public databases, much data still lives behind closed doors at private companies.
To overcome the challenges and prove their worth, Zhavoronkov said, his company is very focused on validating the tech. But this year, skepticism in the pharmaceutical industry seems to be easing into interest and investment.
AI drug discovery startup Exscientia inked a deal with Sanofi for $280 million and GlaxoSmithKline for $42 million. Insilico is also partnering with GlaxoSmithKline, and Numerate is working with Takeda Pharmaceutical. Even Google may jump in. According to an article in Nature outlining the field, the firm’s deep learning project, Google Brain, is growing its biosciences team, and industry watchers wouldn’t be surprised to see them target drug discovery.
With AI and the hardware running it advancing rapidly, the greatest potential may yet be ahead. Perhaps, one day, all 1060 molecules in drug-space will be at our disposal. “You should take all the data you have, build n new models, and search as much of that 1060 as possible” before every decision you make, Brandon Allgood, CTO at Numerate, told Nature.
Today’s projects need to live up to their promises, of course, but Zhavoronkov believes AI will have a big impact in the coming years, and now’s the time to integrate it. “If you are working for a pharma company, and you’re still thinking, ‘Okay, where is the proof?’ Once there is a proof, and once you can see it to believe it—it’s going to be too late,” he said.
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Last week, Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet, predicted that China will rapidly overtake the US in artificial intelligence…in as little as five years.
Last month, China announced plans to open a $10 billion quantum computing research center in 2020.
Bottom line, China is aggressively investing in exponential technologies, pursuing a bold goal of becoming the global AI superpower by 2030.
Based on what I’ve observed from China’s entrepreneurial scene, I believe they have a real shot of hitting that goal.
As I described in a previous tech blog, I recently traveled to China with a group of my Abundance 360 members, where I was hosted by my friend Kai-Fu Lee, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Sinovation Ventures.
On one of our first nights, Kai-Fu invited us to a special dinner at Da Dong Roast, which specializes in Peking duck, where we shared an 18-course meal.
The meal was amazing, and Kai-Fu’s dinner conversation provided us priceless insights on Chinese entrepreneurs.
Three topics opened my eyes. Here’s the wisdom I’d like to share with you.
1. The Entrepreneurial Culture in China
Chinese entrepreneurship has exploded onto the scene and changed significantly over the past 10 years.
In my opinion, one significant way that Chinese entrepreneurs vary from their American counterparts is in work ethic. The mantra I found in the startups I visited in Beijing and Shanghai was “9-9-6”—meaning the employees only needed to work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week.
Another concept Kai-Fu shared over dinner was the almost ‘dictatorial’ leadership of the founder/CEO. In China, it’s not uncommon for the Founder/CEO to own the majority of the company, or at least 30–40 percent. It’s also the case that what the CEO says is gospel. Period, no debate. There is no minority or dissenting opinion. When the CEO says “march,” the company asks, “which way?”
When Kai-Fu started Sinovation (his $1 billion+ venture fund), there were few active angel investors. Today, China has a rich ecosystem of angel, venture capital, and government-funded innovation parks.
As venture capital in China has evolved, so too has the mindset of the entrepreneur.
Kai -Fu recalled an early investment he made in which, after an unfortunate streak, the entrepreneur came to him, almost in tears, apologizing for losing his money and promising he would earn it back for him in another way. Kai-Fu comforted the entrepreneur and said there was no such need.
Only a few years later, the situation was vastly different. An entrepreneur who was going through a similar unfortunate streak came to Kai Fu and told him he only had $2 million left of his initial $12 million investment. He informed him he saw no value in returning the money and instead was going to take the last $2 million and use it as a final push to see if the company could succeed. He then promised Kai-Fu if he failed, he would remember what Kai-Fu did for him and, as such, possibly give Sinovation an opportunity to invest in him with his next company.
2. Chinese Companies Are No Longer Just ‘Copycats’
During dinner, Kai-Fu lamented that 10 years ago, it would be fair to call Chinese companies copycats of American companies. Five years ago, the claim would be controversial. Today, however, Kai-Fu is clear that claim is entirely false.
While smart Chinese startups will still look at what American companies are doing and build on trends, today it’s becoming a wise business practice for American tech giants to analyze Chinese companies. If you look at many new features of Facebook’s Messenger, it seems to very closely mirror TenCent’s WeChat.
Interestingly, tight government controls in China have actually spurred innovation. Take TV, for example, a highly regulated industry. Because of this regulation, most entertainment in China is consumed on the internet or by phone. Game shows, reality shows, and more will be entirely centered online.
Kai-Fu told us about one of his investments in a company that helps create Chinese singing sensations. They take girls in from a young age, school them, and regardless of talent, help build their presence and brand as singers. Once ready, these singers are pushed across all the available platforms, and superstars are born. The company recognizes its role in this superstar status, though, which is why it takes a 50 percent cut of all earnings.
This company is just one example of how Chinese entrepreneurs take advantage of China’s unique position, market, and culture.
3. China’s Artificial Intelligence Play
Kai-Fu wrapped up his talk with a brief introduction into the expansive AI industry in China. I previously discussed Face++, a Sinovation investment, which is creating radically efficient facial recognition technology. Face++ is light years ahead of anyone else globally at recognition in live videos. However, Face++ is just one of the incredible advances in AI coming out of China.
Baidu, one of China’s most valuable tech companies, started out as just a search company. However, they now run one of the country’s leading self-driving car programs.
Baidu’s goal is to create a software suite atop existing hardware that will control all self-driving aspects of a vehicle but also be able to provide additional services such as HD mapping and more.
Another interesting application came from another of Sinovation’s investments, Smart Finance Group (SFG). Given most payments are mobile (through WeChat or Alipay), only ~20 percent of the population in China have a credit history. This makes it very difficult for individuals in China to acquire a loan.
SFG’s mobile application takes in user data (as much as the user allows) and, based on the information provided, uses an AI agent to create a financial profile with the power to offer an instant loan. This loan can be deposited directly into their WeChat or Alipay account and is typically approved in minutes. Unlike American loan companies, they avoid default and long-term debt by only providing a one-month loan with 10% interest. Borrow $200, and you pay back $220 by the following month.
Artificial intelligence is exploding in China, and Kai-Fu believes it will touch every single industry.
The only constant is change, and the rate of change is constantly increasing.
In the next 10 years, we’ll see tremendous changes on the geopolitical front and the global entrepreneurial scene caused by technological empowerment.
China is an entrepreneurial hotbed that cannot be ignored. I’m monitoring it closely. Are you?
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