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This is a somewhat experimental and speculative post. This week I was at the IPAM workshop on machine assisted proof that I was one of the organizers of. We had an interesting and diverse range of talks, both from computer scientists presenting the latest available tools to formally verify proofs or to automate various aspects of proof writing or proof discovery, as well as mathematicians who described their experiences using these tools to solve their research problems. One can find the videos of these talks on the IPAM youtube channel; I also posted about the talks during the event on my Mathstodon account. I am of course not the most objective person to judge, but from the feedback I received it seems that the conference was able to successfully achieve its aim of bringing together the different communities interested in this topic.

As a result of the conference I started thinking about what possible computer tools might now be developed that could be of broad use to mathematicians, particularly those who do not have prior expertise with the finer aspects of writing code or installing software. One idea that came to mind was a potential tool to could take, say, an arXiv preprint as input, and return some sort of diagram detailing the logical flow of the main theorems and lemmas in the paper. This is currently done by hand by authors in some, but not all, papers (and can often also be automatically generated from formally verified proofs, as seen for instance in the graphic accompanying the IPAM workshop, or this diagram generated from Massot’s blueprint software from a manually inputted set of theorems and dependencies as a precursor to formalization of a proof [thanks to Thomas Bloom for this example]). For instance, here is a diagram that my co-author Rachel Greenfeld and I drew for a recent paper:

This particular diagram incorporated a number of subjective design choices regarding layout, which results to be designated important enough to require a dedicated box (as opposed to being viewed as a mere tool to get from one box to another), and how to describe each of these results (and how to colour-code them). This is still a very human-intensive task (and my co-author and I went through several iterations of this particular diagram with much back-and-forth discussion until we were both satisfied). But I could see the possibility of creating an automatic tool that could provide an initial “first approximation” to such a diagram, which a human user could then modify as they see fit (perhaps using some convenient GUI interface, for instance some variant of the Quiver online tool for drawing commutative diagrams in LaTeX).

As a crude first attempt at automatically generating such a diagram, one couuld perhaps develop a tool to scrape a LaTeX file to locate all the instances of the theorem environment in the text (i.e., all the formally identified lemmas, corollaries, and so forth), and for each such theorem, locate a proof environment instance that looks like it is associated to that theorem (doing this with reasonable accuracy may require a small amount of machine learning, though perhaps one could just hope that proximity of the proof environment instance to the theorem environment instance suffices in many cases). Then identify all the references within that proof environment to other theorems to start building the tree of implications, which one could then depict in a diagram such as the above. Such an approach would likely miss many of the implications; for instance, because many lemmas might not be proven using a formal proof environment, but instead by some more free-flowing text discussion, or perhaps a one line justification such as “By combining Lemma 3.4 and Proposition 3.6, we conclude”. Also, some references to other results in the paper might not proceed by direct citation, but by more indirect justifications such as “invoking the previous lemma, we obtain” or “by repeating the arguments in Section 3, we have”. Still, even such a crude diagram might still be helpful, both as a starting point for authors to make an improved diagram, or for a student trying to understand a lengthy paper to get some initial idea of the logical structure.

More advanced features might be to try to use more of the text of the paper to assign some measure of importance to individual results (and then weight the diagram correspondingly to highlight the more important results), to try to give each result a natural language description, and to somehow capture key statements that are not neatly encapsulated in a theorem environment instance, but I would imagine that such tasks should be deferred until some cruder proof-of-concept prototype can be demonstrated.

Anyway, I would be interested to hear opinions about whether this idea (or some modification thereof) is (a) actually feasible with current technology (or better yet, already exists in some form), and (b) of interest to research mathematicians.