For the first time, a robotic system has made a novel scientific discovery with virtually no human intellectual input.
Scientists designed “Adam” to carry out the entire scientific process on its own: formulating hypotheses, designing and running experiments, analyzing data, and deciding which experiments to run next…
The demonstration of autonomous science breaks major ground. Researchers have been automating portions of the scientific process for decades, using robotic laboratory instruments to screen for drugs and sequence genomes, but humans are usually responsible for forming the hypotheses and designing the experiments themselves. After the experiments are complete, the humans must exert themselves again to draw conclusions.
Adam’s British designers, led by Ross King at Aberystwyth University in Wales, acknowledge that the robot’s discoveries have been “of a modest kind” thus far. Its proving ground as a scientist has been the genome of baker’s yeast, a popular laboratory species. Baker’s yeast is one of the best understood organisms, but 10 to 15 percent of its roughly 6,000 genes have unknown functions. The scientists hoped Adam could shed light on some of these mystery genes.
After analyzing the data and running follow-up experiments — it can design and initiate over a thousand new experiments each day — Adam had uncovered three genes that together coded for an orphan enzyme. King’s group confirmed the novel findings by hand.
Waltz thinks Adam will inspire other scientists. “They’ll realize they can automate more of the process than they currently have. They can explore a wider range of possibilities without doing it all by hand.”
King looks forward to teams of humans and robots. Makes good sense to me – especially as the raw power available for computational analysis is teamed with improving AI software. The only thing that stands still is peoples’ fear of the future.