First Robot Scientist Makes Gene Discovery

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
April 2, 2009

He can come up with a hypothesis, plan an experiment, reason about the results, and then plan his next steps.

Now ADAM is the first robot—but maybe not the last—to have independently discovered new scientific information, according to scientists who recently built themselves the mechanical colleague.

Ross King, of Aberystwyth University in Wales, U.K., and colleagues created ADAM by combining the most advanced robotics hardware with artificial intelligence software.

"Normal robots just do what you tell them, but ADAM is different, because it can hypothesize and try to solve a problem itself," King said.

(Related: "Robot Code of Ethics to Prevent Android Abuse, Protect Humans.")

To test ADAM's capabilities, King's team gave the robot the task of discovering more about the genome of baker's yeast, a simple microbe often used as a model for studying more complex biological systems.

First ADAM was given a crash course in biology, including everything that is already known about baker's yeast.

ADAM quickly set to work, formulating and testing 20 different hypotheses. The robot eventually identified the genes that code for enzymes involved in yeast metabolism—a scientific first for a robot.

Using independent experiments, King and his colleagues were able to verify ADAM's results.

Robots to Replace Scientists?

Robot scientists like ADAM might one day work alongside human researchers to boost productivity, King said.

"There are certain scientific problems that are so complicated that there are not enough people available to solve them," King said. "We need to automate in order to have a hope of solving these problems."

Robot scientists, for example, could prove valuable in drug design and screening.

King's next scientific robot, EVE, is being created specifically to help search for new drugs to treat tropical diseases such as malaria.

But King and his colleagues don't think that robots can ever completely replace human scientists.

"While robots are better at coordinating thousands of experiments," King said, "humans are better are seeing the big picture and planning the overall experiment."

Findings published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

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