Adam and Eve, Can a Robot Replace a Scientist?

Author:  Yangguang Ou
Institution:  Florida State University
Date:  April 2009

A team of scientists from Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom has recently built the first robot to "independently discover new scientific knowledge." Their results were recently published in the journal Science.

The robot, called "Adam," was capable of performing 1,000 experiments per day, according to BBC News, and was designed specifically to study the Baker's Yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Using its three computers, its "brains," and mechanical arms, Adam was capable of making hypotheses and planning experiments to test its educated guesses. Adam could then perform these experiments without human intervention, although the study did state that Adam did need some set-up assistance. Ross King, a professor from the Department of Computational Science at Aberystwyth University, told BBC News that robots like Adam can perform the more time-consuming and mundane tasks so human scientists will have more time "freed up to do more advanced experiments."

Even though Adam was not capable of advanced human thinking and deductions, it was able to make publishable conclusions in the science field. The study, which focused on the gene products of S. cerevisiae, involved the robot observing the growth of yeast cells while removing specific unknown genes. According to King, as told to BBC News, the yeast genome contains approximately 6,000 different genes, most of which have been mapped, but the functions of many remain unknown. Adam was able to work out the roles of the genes by observing the strains of yeast in which the genes were removed in comparison to the wild-type colonies. "It's like a car. If you remove one component from the engine, then drive the car to see how it performs, you can find out what that particular component does," King explained. According to the paper, Adam discovered the role of 12 different genes in the yeast cells.

Duc Pham, a scientist at the Manufacturing Engineering Center at Cardiff University, agreed that the robot was "a clever application of robotics and computer software." However, Pham pointed out that robots like Adam are "more like junior lab assistant(s) than a scientist," and that it will take time before robots can replace scientists in the laboratory, according to BBC News. King also agreed that the field of science robotics is still in its early stages of development: "If you spent all of the money we've spent on Adam on employing human biologists, Adam probably wouldn't turn out to be the cost-effective option," he said. However, King added: "But that was the case with the first car. Initially, the investment in the technology wasn't as cost-effective as sticking with horses."

Currently, King and his colleagues are building a more advanced "robot scientist" called Eve, which is designed to test new drugs and analyze them.


Written By: Yangguang Ou

Reviewed by: News and Features Editor Brittany Raffa and Professional Reviewer Renee Gilberti

Published by Falishia Sloan