How Close Are Computers to Automating Mathematical Reasoning?

In the 1970s, the late mathematician Paul Cohen, the only person to ever win a Fields Medal for work in mathematical logic, reportedly made a sweeping prediction that continues to excite and irritate mathematicians — that “at some unspecified future time, mathematicians would be replaced by computers.” Cohen, legendary for his daring methods in set theory, predicted that all of mathematics could be automated, including the writing of proofs.

A proof is a step-by-step logical argument that verifies the truth of a conjecture, or a mathematical proposition. (Once it’s proved, a conjecture becomes a theorem.) It both establishes the validity of a statement and explains why it’s true. A proof is strange, though. It’s abstract and untethered to material experience. “They’re this crazy contact between an imaginary, nonphysical world and biologically evolved creatures,” said the cognitive scientist Simon DeDeo of Carnegie Mellon University, who studies mathematical certainty by analyzing the structure of proofs. “We did not evolve to do this.”

Computers are useful for big calculations, but proofs require something different. Conjectures arise from inductive reasoning — a kind of intuition about an interesting problem — and proofs generally follow deductive, step-by-step logic. They often require complicated creative thinking as well as the more laborious work of filling in the gaps, and machines can’t achieve this combination.

Computerized theorem provers can be broken down into two categories. Automated theorem provers, or ATPs, typically use brute-force methods to crunch through big calculations. Interactive theorem provers, or ITPs, act as proof assistants that can verify the accuracy of an argument and check existing proofs for errors. But these two strategies, even when combined (as is the case with newer theorem provers), don’t add up to automated reasoning.

Photo of Simon DeDeo
Simon DeDeo of Carnegie Mellon helped show that people and machines seem to construct mathematical proofs in similar ways. Courtesy of Simon DeDeo

Plus, the tools haven’t been met with open arms, and the majority of mathematicians don’t use or welcome them. “They’re very controversial for mathematicians,” DeDeo said. “Most of them don’t like the idea.”

A formidable open challenge in the field asks how much proof-making can actually be automated: Can a system generate an interesting conjecture and prove it in a way that people understand? A slew of recent advances from labs around the world suggests ways that artificial intelligence tools may answer that question. Josef Urban at the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics in Prague is exploring a variety of approaches that use machine learning to boost the efficiency and performance of existing provers. In July, his group reported a set of original conjectures and proofs generated and verified by machines. And in June, a group at Google Research led by Christian Szegedy posted recent results from efforts to harness the strengths of natural language processing to make computer proofs more human-seeming in structure and explanation.

Some mathematicians see theorem provers as a potentially game-changing tool for training undergraduates in proof writing. Others say that getting computers to write proofs is unnecessary for advancing mathematics and probably impossible. But a system that can predict a useful conjecture and prove a new theorem will achieve something new —  some machine version of understanding, Szegedy said. And that suggests the possibility of automating reason itself.

Useful Machines

Mathematicians, logicians and philosophers have long argued over what part of creating proofs is fundamentally human, and debates about mechanized mathematics continue today, especially in the deep valleys connecting computer science and pure mathematics.

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Quanta Magazine

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11 min

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