As robotic technology and the capabilities therein are advanced every day, so too are robots' abilities to further scientific discovery enhanced. Robots are now being used to discover new novel treatments for diseases, new drugs, they're even being used to create artificial organs and perform surgery.
Robotic technology is advancing at perhaps the fastest rate than it ever has, which means good things for scientific discovery.
Robots, in this case, specifically AI, are even advancing to the point where they can form their own hypothesis and test and analyze data to prove or disprove it. Robots are being trained to adopt the scientific method and solve problems.
One of the best examples of this is a robot named Adam.
Adam the robot is advancing science
Adam is the name of a pseudo sentient robot at Aberystwyth University. In 2009, what seems like a lifetime ago already, Adam became the first machine in the history of the known universe to discover scientific knowledge independent of human instruction.
Specifically, Adam formed a unique hypothesis regarding the genetic structure of bakers' yeast. After forming the hypothesis, the robot carried out self-designed experiments to test its predictions.
Adam then discovered new knowledge about the gene coding structures of yeast. Professor Ross King, the researcher who designed Adam, as well as his successor, Eve, had this to say about the discovery back in 2009.
“Ultimately we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories. Adam is a prototype, Eve is better designed and more elegant.”
In regards to Adam's experiment, the scientists only intervened to do things that the robot wasn't designed to do. Things like adding more chemicals to the robots holding tanks or removing waste from the experiment bay.
Adam was able to perform thousands of experiments on yeast simultaneously with each lasting roughly 5 days. It's this level of multitasking and record tracking that can muddle up human-run research, however, it was all no problem for Adam.
Adam utilizes a massive database and AI to determine which and how much of a certain chemical to add to the yeast to determine the result.
Through the initial breakthrough of Adam now over a decade ago, it marked the beginning of robots becoming autonomous scientists. Imagine being able to turn the world's supercomputers onto creating a new vaccine and the computers actually having the ability to go out and run the genetic experiments to test the vaccine. As robot dexterity increases, along with new developments in AI & machine learning, that future is only getting nearer.
The practice of science and why robots can accelerate it
Modern science is still a fairly repetitive process. The scientific method is founded on the premise that the results of any given experiment be repeatable given the same conditions. Human scientists, however, can be fairly messy in the testing process. This can be accounted for statistically through models of data variance, but robots can solve the problem entirely.
Robots don't accidentally or unknowingly add an extra milliliter of a chemical. If they do, the problem is traceable and manageable. Mistakes are human, which means that sometimes science has mistakes.
The other issue with modern science is that the repeatability needed to establish significance in results makes a lot of science fairly boring. That means running the same test over and over to verify and double verify your results. This isn't particularly exciting or engaging for some of the world's top scientific minds, so why not leave this repetitiveness to mindless robots and let knowledgeable scientists focus on more impactful matters.
One example of the way that scientific discovery is aided by the use for smart repetitive scientific robots is that in developing new metal allows.
For example, if a scientist or chemist wants to set out to lightweight steal, knowledge of the surrounding chemistry might tell the to add chromium, nickel, or manganese to the mixture. However, exactly how much and when to add those alloys wouldn't necessarily be something that could be deduced from existing science. In order to determine the exact right moment and quantity, thousands of tests would need to be done, each time altering timing and quantity. To humans, this task is inherently boring. And when humans are bored, our minds tend to wander and we tend to make mistakes. Robots don't.
It's this process, inherent to new discovery, that robots are perfectly suited for. Robots have the time and the attention span to pursue endlessly variant possibilities in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Humans don't.
Robots in scientific discovery
As you can gather from the discussion we've had on robots utilized in scientific discovery, we can begin to understand the advantages of robotics in this space.
Adam the robot simultaneously studied thousands of strains of yeast. He took millions of measurements simultaneously. A human grad student counterpart would only be able to study a few different strains of yeast per year and take measurements for those. The human analytical approach needs time and focus.
We can look at a few other places where robots are currently being used to accelerate scientific discovery. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory utilizing a High Throughput Experimental Database to test new metal alloy combinations. It then catalogs the structural and physical properties of these alloys for later reference.
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's Autonomous Research System, otherwise known as ARES, studies the conditions needed to grow carbon nanotubes. It utilizes AI and robotic systems to perfect the growth rate of nanotube manufacturing.
At the end of the day, these are just a few examples. Robots are propagating the whole of the scientific research industry, slowly but surely. Human scientists still have a place and they always will. In fact, in a similar way that automation is pushing humans to more brain-intensive tasks in the automation industry, automation in the realm of scientific discovery makes scientists more focused on the creative aspects of science.
Creativity and original thought in the fields of science are uniquely suited to the human brain, it's what we do best. With robots and AI taking care of the repetitive, humans can thus do what we do best, create.