Have you ever noticed that, once a given idea gains acceptance in the community, everyone starts seeing its exemplification practically everywhere? I am not saying this is without merit, but I am sure you might agree that there was a time when no one looked at water as an “extra” in DFT calculations. Then water turned into an integral part of virtually every mechanism. Another example is when everyone started showing concerted metalation/deprotonation in C-H activation mechanisms. The list goes on and on.
One particular modern trend that I notice is towards involving single electron transfer in chemical transformations. What’s annoying is when people present this idea as an earth-shattering concept that is without precedent. I would respectfully remind everyone that there were several times in the past just like now. Electron transfer would become fashionable, and a ton of data would emerge to support its profound influence. Then people would forget it and move on, only to rediscover the virtues of moving electrons one at a time a decade or so later. This apparent amnesia gives me an opportunity to comment on an excellent paper from one of my heroes and mentors, the late Professor George A. Olah. Below is a fascinating piece from the ’80s, where Olah considered the generation of alcohols in the course of some Wittig reactions. Single electron transfer is the mechanism that accounts for the formation of the reduced product in this case. Yes, even the venerable Wittig reaction can involve electrons jumping one at a time!
In the 19thcentury chemistry papers people routinely described how they had eaten or smelled the compounds they were making in the lab. By today’s standards, this practice is foolish, although there are enthusiasts who still resort to this dubious methodology. But let’s dig a little deeper. While tasting the products of one’s synthesis is reckless, let’s remember the teachings of Helmholtz. Among many of his original research contributions is an argument about the role of visual sensation in science (http://study.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/Hermann%20von%20Helmholtz.pdf). All of our scientific advances depend on observations of some kind and they are inevitably visual. Appreciation of everything from numerical values to molecular structure depends on how our retina responds to a stimulus. But is it all there is? Is it enough to solely rely on visual stimuli in our attempts to understand the world? Unfortunately, we do not have many options. The sound, taste, and smell are different from vision but they are not as information-rich when it comes to understanding the matter around us. I wonder if there is a civilization out there that has developed advanced senses other than vision to respond to changes around them and extract meaningful information.
From time to time I will write short essays on artificial intelligence (AI). AI is something that I know little about, so please forgive my ignorance. Wait… What I just said already sounds dangerously foolish because, if I am not an expert, I should probably pipe down. But I won’t be quiet because AI is now everywhere and, at its core, it commonly employs linear regression analysis, which has been around forever. At least this is what I would like to believe at this stage.
I am starting to read Bostrom’s “Superintelligence” and it paints a rather gloomy picture that is in store for us if things go astray. The point is that machines may one day surpass humans. Our fate will then depend on the actions of some powerful AI system, but I have a strong feeling that this won’t happen for a while because training sets are created by humans. Having said that, I would also hate our role to be relegated to the generation of those training sets. Don’t laugh: plenty of Edisonian science feeds there, so many of us are at it already.
Here is an uncomfortable thought I just had: a scary moment is a day when our own intelligence will be referred to as some primitive proteinaceous intelligence (PI). As a corollary to that, there will be nothing artificial about AI. Think about it.