Meet The First Robo Scientist

This is not your father's robot. Scientists at Aberystwyth University based in Wales, U.K., have successfully created a robot named Adam that fully automates repetitive tasks in the scientific process. Professor Ross King, a lead scientist from the school's Department of Computer Science, and a colleague stand in front of the robot, which looks more like a data center rather than something from a science-fiction flick. The research project began in 1999 and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the U.K.

King's team worked with the University of Cambridge to design Adam to automatically carry stages of scientific development without the need for further human intervention. However, that doesn't mean that robots are about to totally replace scientists. "Ultimately, we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories," King said.

Scientists are excited because in performing routine tasks, Adam discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of a baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems. The researchers used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam's hypotheses were both novel and correct.

"Because biological organisms are so complex, it is important that the details of biological experiments are recorded in great detail," King said. "This is difficult and irksome for human scientists, but easy for robot scientists."

Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesized that certain genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes, which catalyze biochemical reactions in yeast. The robot then devised experiments to test these predictions, ran the experiments using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results and repeated the cycle.

Maybe if Adam and Eve were robots, there wouldn't have been trouble in paradise.

The scientists are in the process of creating another robot, Eve. This is the most recent picture of "her" from December 2008. Although not yet finished, King believes "she" will be a great asset to scientists who are trying to develop new drugs to battle malaria and schistosomiasis, an infection caused by a type of parasitic worm in the tropics.

"If science was more efficient, it would be better placed to help solve society's problems," King said. "One way to make science more efficient is through automation. Automation was the driving force behind much of the 19th and 20th century progress, and this is likely to continue."