John Naughton: Douglas Adams was right – knowledge without understanding is meaningless | John Naughton

Using supercomputers to explain life, the universe and everything takes us into territory previously only laughed at

Fans of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy treasure the bit where a group of hyper-dimensional beings demand that a supercomputer tells them the secret to life, the universe and everything. The machine, which has been constructed specifically for this purpose, takes 7.5m years to compute the answer, which famously comes out as 42. The computer helpfully points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never knew what the question was. And the name of the supercomputer? Why, Deep Thought, of course.

Machine-learning may soon enable us to accurately predict how a protein will fold. But it won’t be scientific knowledge

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