And I, for one, welcome our new robot scientists

robot with laptopRobots are ideal for doing human tasks that are repetitive, like screwing lids on cosmetic bottles, welding car panels… and now making scientific discoveries. Columbia University’s “Adam” machine is “the first automated system to complete the cycle from hypothesis, to experiment, to reformulated hypothesis without human intervention”.

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.


They armed Adam with a model of yeast metabolism and a database of genes and proteins involved in metabolism in other species. Then they set the mechanical beast loose, only intervening to remove waste or replace consumed solutions. […]

Adam sought out gaps in the metabolism model, specifically orphan enzymes, which scientists think exist, but which haven’t been linked to any parent genes. After selecting a desirable orphan, Adam scoured the database for similar enzymes in other organisms, along with the corresponding genes. Using this information, it hypothesized that similar genes in the yeast genome may code for the orphan enzyme.

The process might sound simple — and indeed, similar “scientific discovery” algorithms already exist — but Adam was only getting started. Still chugging along on its own, it designed experiments to test its hypotheses, and performed them using a fully automated array of centrifuges, incubators, pipettes, and growth analyzers.

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.

Score one for the Singularitarians – autonomous systems that can follow the scientific method without supervision would surely be a component of an emergent self-improving artificial intelligence, if I understand the theory correctly. [image by jurvetson]

And why not outsource our more tedious scientific tasks to robot underlings? After all, we’ve been fairly unhesitating in our rush to do the same with warfare… no matter how ethically blurred an idea that may be: