At the Math Olympiad, Computers Prepare to Go for the Gold

Kevin Hartnett:

The 61st International Mathematical Olympiad, or IMO, begins today. It may go down in history for at least two reasons: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic it’s the first time the event has been held remotely, and it may also be the last time that artificial intelligence doesn’t compete.

Indeed, researchers view the IMO as the ideal proving ground for machines designed to think like humans. If an AI system can excel here, it will have matched an important dimension of human cognition.

“The IMO, to me, represents the hardest class of problems that smart people can be taught to solve somewhat reliably,” said Daniel Selsam of Microsoft Research. Selsam is a founder of the IMO Grand Challenge, whose goal is to train an AI system to win a gold medal at the world’s premier math competition.

Since 1959, the IMO has brought together the best pre-college math students in the world. On each of the competition’s two days, participants have four and a half hours to answer three problems of increasing difficulty. They earn up to seven points per problem, and top scorers take home medals, just like at the Olympic Games. The most decorated IMO participants become legends in the mathematics community. Some have gone on to become superlative research mathematicians.