Chemists have a new lab assistant: artificial intelligence. Researchers have developed a ‘deep learning’ computer program that produces blueprints for the sequences of reactions needed to create small organic molecules, such as drug compounds. The pathways that the tool suggests look just as good on paper as those devised by human chemists.

The tool, described in Nature on 28 March1, is not the first software to wield artificial intelligence (AI) instead of human skill and intuition. Yet chemists hail the development as a milestone, saying that it could speed up the process of drug discovery and make organic chemistry more efficient.

“What we have seen here is that this kind of artificial intelligence can capture this expert knowledge,” says Pablo Carbonell, who designs synthesis-predicting tools at the University of Manchester, UK, and was not involved in the work. He describes the effort as “a landmark paper”.

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