Job Swap: This Robot Is the Scientist

"I don't even know why the scientists make them!" exclaims a "Saturday Night Live" character in a skit about rampaging robots. Now she has an answer — at least some scientists make robots to do science.

A science-savvy robot called Adam has successfully developed and tested its first scientific hypothesis, all without human intervention. This hints at a future where robots could spare lab assistants and post-docs some of the drudgery of research.

"We've now demonstrated that Adam can do some novel biology work," said Ross King, a computer scientist and biologist at Aberystwyth University in the UK.

Adam's first achievement involved discovering that certain genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes which encourage biochemical reactions in yeast. The robot scientist then ran an experiment with its lab hardware to test its predictions, analyzed the results, rinsed and repeated.

King and researchers at the University of Cambridge first created a computer that could generate hypotheses and perform experiments five years ago. Until now, computers and robots have run the same series of tasks over and over in work such as gene sequencing.

{{ video="LS_090402_RoboSciMusicVid" title="Robo-Scientist Automates Understanding" caption="Up 'til now, robots have only been good at generating data for humans to interpret. Aberystwyth University's new Biology Robot Scientist can do both, saving researchers a lot of time and headaches." }}

"This is one of the first systems to get [artificial intelligence] to try and control laboratory automation," King told LiveScience. "[Current robots] tend to do one thing or a sequence of things. The complexity of Adam is that it has cycles."

The software that drives Adam's thought process sits on three computers, other than some lesser computer chips which help control Adam's robotic lab hardware. Some of Adam's parts even sit in different buildings.

Adam has cost roughly $1 million to develop so far. Spending the same amount on lab techs would probably yield a more reliable system, King noted. But he added that Adam can investigate a thousand experiments a day, and still keep track of all the results better than humans can.

King's group has also created another robot scientist called Eve. Unlike Adam's focus on basic biology research, Eve is dedicated to screening chemical compounds for new pharmaceutical drugs that could combat diseases such as malaria.

"We made many mistakes and learned from Adam," King said. "Eve is a much cleaner design."

The two robots could work together on some research, provided that humans write the proper programs which allow for robotic cooperation. King's group might turn Adam's attention to genetic research involving C. elegans, a worm and "model organism" commonly used in scientific research.

Full details on Adam appear in the April 3 issue of the journal Science. Another paper in the same issue of Science describes a different computer program developed at Cornell University that can use raw observational data to tease out fundamental laws of physics.

Creating even simple artificial intelligence has proved no easy feat, but King admitted that he started the project expecting an easier time. He pointed to how much money the pharmaceutical industry has already poured into research and development on screening for new drugs.

"I expected the laboratory automation to be more of a solved problem than it is," King said.

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Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.