20 December 2019
By Gege Li
Machines are getting better at maths – artificial intelligence has learned to solve university-level calculus problems in seconds.
François Charton and Guillaume Lample at Facebook AI Research trained an AI on tens of millions of calculus problems randomly generated by a computer. The problems were mathematical expressions that involved integration, a common technique in calculus for finding the area under a curve.
To find solutions, the AI used natural language processing (NLP), a computational tool commonly used to analyse language. This works because the mathematics in each problem can be thought of as a sentence, with variables, normally denoted x, playing the role of nouns and operations, such as finding the square root, playing the role of verbs. The AI then “translates” the problem into a solution.
When the pair tested the AI on 500 calculus problems, it found a solution with an accuracy of 98 per cent. A comparable standard program for solving maths problems had only an accuracy of 85 per cent on the same problems.
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The team also gave the AI differential equations to solve, which are other equations that require integration to solve as well as other techniques. For these equations, the AI wasn’t quite as good, solving them correctly 81 per cent for one type of differential equation and 40 per cent on a harder type.
Despite this, it could still correctly answer questions that confounded other maths programs.
Doing calculus on a computer isn’t especially useful in practice, but with further training AI might one day be able to tackle maths problems that are too hard for humans to crack, says Charton.
The efficiency of the AI could save humans time in other mathematical tasks, for example, when proving theorems, says Nikos Aletras at the University of Sheffield, UK.
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