Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Robot Scientist

If you've been in a research lab you can't have failed to notice not only how much expensive looking equipment there often is, but how much of it is linked together these days. Lots of machinery either comes with a computer or is later linked to one in the lab to automate data entry.

It's only a couple of steps from there to linking together all your equipment, adding in some simple algorithms for how the scientific process works, and you can go hang out on a beach whilst your lab equipment does its own experiments.

Sounds a bit futuristic? Nope, a recent paper in Science entitled 'The Automation of Science' describes just such a scenario. Scientists in England developed a robot named Adam to identify genes involved in yeast metabolism. Adam formulates hypotheses about the origins of enzymes for which scientists have been unable to identify the encoding genes. The robot then plans and executes experiments to test its hypotheses--selecting yeast mutants from a collection, incubating cells, and measuring their growth rates. Adam came up with 20 hypotheses about genes encoding 13 enzymes, 12 of which it confirmed.

There's a commentary on the paper in Science, the story was picked up by the media, but the best comment is in a New Scientist report:

'Will Bridewell, an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says Adam is operating only at the level of a graduate student. '

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