"Robot Scientist" Said to Equal Humans at Some Tasks

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The robot scientist, equipped with a wealth of information about biochemistry and sophisticated AI software, watches the yeast grow, generates a set of hypotheses concerning the function of the gene in question, and then plans an experiment that will eliminate as many of the hypotheses as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The robot then conducts experiments by dispensing and mixing liquids using one machine and measures the growth of yeast with a second machine that feeds the results back into the system. It then evaluates the results against the set of hypotheses, generates new hypotheses, and the process starts again.

The researchers say this is the same type of scientific process that humans use to understand the world.

In fact, King and Oliver said the robot performed as well as a group of graduate students and staff tasked with the same problem and "was both significantly cheaper and faster than just choosing random experiments or the cheapest experiments."

New Knowledge?

In the baker's yeast test, the robot scientist proved it could figure out the function of specific genes. The researchers know the robot's results were correct because they had already independently gotten the same answers.

"Our main focus now is trying to demonstrate that we can generate new scientific knowledge," said King and Oliver.

For example, about 30 percent of the 6,000 genes in baker's yeast are unknown but many are thought to be common to the human genome. If the robot scientist can figure out the function of those genes, the results could prove medically important.

If the robot scientist succeeds, the researchers said any new knowledge would need to be treated as provisional until independently verified, as is protocol with the scientific process. "There is no reason to treat the robot's results any differently," they said.

Regardless of how successful the robot scientist becomes, Collins said human imagination and creativity would continue to play an important role in the scientific process.

"There is still a significant role for imagination and creativity that is overlaid, coupled with, the scientific knowledge in front of you for coming up with a non-obvious hypothesis," he said.

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