Robots and scientists thinking together

Scientists in the UK have incorporated artificial intelligence (AI) and a sophisticated set of algorithms into a robot, named Adam, that can develop hypotheses and carry out a whole scientific experimentation cycle. The research, published in the journal Science, paves the way for dramatically increasing the rate of scientific progress.

Currently, automation is used in laboratories to carry out high-throughput experiments, which has helped to process vast amounts of scientific data in a much shorter timeframe than would otherwise be possible. However, in the area of systems biology, which is complex and involves staggering amounts of data that could not reasonably be analysed by any single human being, such technologies are inadequate. For example, one person would have great difficulty analysing the volume of information in one genome, and would find it impossible to analyse several of them together.

According to the current study, led by Professor Ross King at Aberystwyth University in the UK, robot scientists have the potential to provide more than simple automation to systems biology. By originating hypotheses, devising experiments, physically carrying them out and continuously interpreting the results, they could revolutionise the way scientific research is carried out. Advances in AI and computational systems are making this possible.

The scientists developed a robotic system and set it the task of identifying the genes that encode enzymes which catalyse reactions in baker's yeast (scientists use this organism to model more complex life systems). This 50-year-old puzzle had not yet been solved, and the researchers were interested to see how the robot would tackle it.

Adam came up with and tested 20 hypotheses, and produced conclusions based on its experiments. The researchers then confirmed the results by repeating the experiments manually. The reason the problem had been so difficult to solve, they found, was that there were so many complicating factors - a common problem in systems biology. According to the study, the robot's analyses were necessary to the feat of unravelling this 'web of functionality'.

Describing and reporting science clearly is essential for the free exchange of scientific knowledge. Importantly, the robot was able to record every step of the process, from beginning to end, in great detail. Adam was also able to go through the entire scientific experimentation cycle in a very short time, which gives the researchers hope that their new knowledge will enable new discoveries to be made at a much quicker pace than is currently possible.

"If science was more efficient, it would be better placed to help solve society's problems," said Professor King. "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."

While it could be argued that Adam was able to make its discovery because of the way the researchers had formulated the problem, the team believes that Adam is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge.

"We accept that the knowledge automatically generated by Adam is of a modest kind," the study concludes. "However, this knowledge is not trivial, and in the case of the genes encoding 2A2OA, it sheds light on, and perhaps solves, a 50-year-old puzzle." Adam demonstrated how a simple form of hypothesis-led discovery can be automated - a significant step forward for AI and computational systems.

Using robot scientists in the laboratory will hopefully enhance the way human scientists study biology. Commenting on the study in a podcast interview with Science, Dr David Waltz said, "Clearly, in biology there are vast amounts of data that have to be understood. There is no good way to simplify biology down to a few simple terms. In some sense, biology requires that we catalogue, understand and organise vast amounts of data. Biology is uniquely in need of methods like the ones described in order to make some sense of it." The new findings also have implications, he said, for enhancing the study of astronomical data and climate modelling.

In the accompanying editorial, Dr Waltz and Bruce G. Buchanan commented, "Human-machine partnering systems that match the tasks to what each partner does best can potentially increase the rate of scientific progress dramatically, in the process revolutionising the practice of science and changing what scientists need to know."

The next step is to extend the robot's functions and capabilities by using software that will enable external users to propose hypotheses and experiments. The scientists hope to develop a way of enabling teams of human and robot scientists to work together. Adam is a still a prototype, but the UK team believes that their next robot will hold great promise for scientists searching for new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria.

For further information, please visit:

Copyright ©European Communities, 2009
Neither the Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, nor any person acting on its behalf, is responsible for the use, which might be made of the attached information. The attached information is drawn from the Community R&D Information Service (CORDIS). The CORDIS services are carried on the CORDIS Host in Luxembourg - http://cordis.europa.eu. Access to CORDIS is currently available free-of-charge.

Most Popular Now

COVID-19 can trigger self-attacking antibodies

Infection with the virus that causes COVID-19 can trigger an immune response that lasts well beyond the initial infection and recovery - even among people who had mild sy...

Stopping dementia at the nose with combination of …

Dementia is thought to occur when proteins called amyloid-β, tau, and α-synuclein accumulate in the brain and form oligomers. A research group from the Department of Tran...

Treatments in weeks, not months: Scientists develo…

An international team of scientists has created a plan for an accelerated pipeline for developing drug cocktails to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. The pipeline could speed...

COVID-19 - Omicron: resistant to most monoclonal a…

The Omicron variant was detected for the first time in South Africa in November 2021 and has since spread to many countries. It is expected to become the dominant variant...

Scientists identify antibodies that can neutralize…

An international team of scientists have identified antibodies that neutralize omicron and other SARS-CoV-2 variants. These antibodies target areas of the virus spike pro...

Pfizer and BioNTech sign new global collaboration …

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) and BioNTech SE (Nasdaq: BNTX) announced a new research, development and commercialization collaboration to develop a potential first mRNA-based v...

Novartis and Molecular Partners report positive to…

Novartis and Molecular Partners announced that Part A of the EMPATHY clinical trial(1) that compared single intravenous doses of ensovibep, a DARPin antiviral therapeutic...

Bayer and Mammoth Biosciences to collaborate on no…

Bayer AG and Mammoth Biosciences, Inc., which is harnessing the diversity of nature to power the next-generation CRISPR products, today announced a strategic collaboratio...

Amgen and Arrakis Therapeutics announce multi-targ…

Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) and Arrakis Therapeutics today announced a research collaboration focused on the discovery and development of RNA degrader therapeutics against a rang...

Leiden University Medical Center and Intravacc to …

Intravacc, a global leader in translational research and development of therapeutic vaccines and vaccines against infectious diseases, today announced a partnership with ...

New Vaxzevria data further support its use as thir…

Positive results from a preliminary analysis of an ongoing safety and immunogenicity trial (D7220C00001) showed that Vaxzevria (ChAdOx1-S [Recombinant]), when given as a ...

AstraZeneca and Ionis close agreement to develop a…

AstraZeneca has closed a global development and commercialisation agreement with Ionis Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Ionis) for eplontersen, formerly known as IONIS-TTR-LRX. ...