Rusty C3PO

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University have created a "robot scientist" which the researchers believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge.

It is not the management and analysis of complex data that is the big deal about Adam, it is the ability of the machine to reason with those data and make proposals about how a living thing works.

Stephen Oliver

The robot, called Adam, is a computer system that fully automates the scientific process. The work, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) was published today, 03 April 2009, in the journal Science.

The scientists designed Adam to carry out each stage of the scientific process automatically without the need for further human intervention. The robot has discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of the baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems. The researchers have used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam's hypotheses were both novel and correct.

Stephen Oliver, one of the co-authors on the paper and Professor of Systems Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, said: "The novel thing is that Adam is able to formulate hypotheses on its own and test them. In this project, a machine has discovered new scientific knowledge.

"As we start to consider living systems in a holistic manner, the complexity of such systems means that it will become increasingly difficult for scientists to formulate hypotheses unaided. Thus it will be necessary for human and robot scientists to work together to achieve the goals of biological research.

"It is not the management and analysis of complex data that is the big deal about Adam, it is the ability of the machine to reason with those data and make proposals about how a living thing works."

Prof Ross King, who led the research at Aberystwyth University, said: "Ultimately we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories. Because biological organisms are so complex it is important that the details of biological experiments are recorded in great detail. This is difficult and irksome for human scientists, but easy for Robot Scientists."

Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesised that certain genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes which catalyse 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.

Adam is a still a prototype, but Prof King's team believe that their next robot, Eve, holds great promise for scientists searching for new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, an infection caused by a type of parasitic worm in the tropics.

Prof King continued: "If science was more efficient it would be better placed to help solve society's problems. 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."

Professor Oliver of Wolfson College and his post-doc Pnar Pir participated in the construction of the logical model of yeast metabolism that formed Adam's background knowledge. They also designed the basic experimental format in terms of media, growth conditions, etc., and analysed Adam's hypotheses to figure out why human scientists failed to connect those genes to the orphan enzymes.

The image and video were kindly provided by Aberystwyth University.

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