AI deduces the periodic table

Tuesday 26 June 2018

There is an interesting report from Professor Shoucheng Zhang, a professor of physics at Stanford University which claims that he has used artificial intelligence to recreate the periodic table.

Zhang's team wanted to know whether AI would be smart enough to deduce the periodic table of elements without any human intervention. A programme, called Atom2Vec, learned to distinguish between different atoms after analysing a list of chemical compound names and formulas from an online database. Within just a few hours it deduced the periodic table. This was achieved by using the concept that the properties of words can be understood by looking at other words surrounding them. By knowing the chemical formulas of all known compounds the programme was able to cluster the elements according to their chemical properties.

Zhang sees this as a big step forward towards designing a replacement to the Turing test. Currently to pass the Turing test AI must be able to respond to written questions in the same way as humans. However humans are the product of evolution and act irrationally so it is difficult for AI to incorporate all these irrationalities. He feels a better test would be to see if AI can discover a new law of nature. The point of the periodic table test was to see if AI can first replicate some of the great discoveries already made.

What is not made clear in the article is how Mendeleyev was able to deduce the periodic table in 1869 from a much smaller and incomplete amount of data than the AI programme and how he had to ignore some inconsistencies (such as increasing atomic weights not exactly following the order of increasing atomic number). Mendeleyev’s greatest achievement was not only to be able to predict that some elements remained to be discovered but he was also able to deduce with remarkable accuracy the properties of these unknown elements. I personally would be more impressed with the claims of AI if it could come up with the periodic table using just the information that Mendeleyev had at the time. 


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