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Robo-scientist makes gene discovery--on its own

Scientists designed "Adam" to carry out scientific research automatically, without the need for further human intervention.

Adam (shown in background) may not look like its two colleagues in the white coats, but it's starting to act like them.
Aberystwyth University

Earlier this week, we told you about a robot that could be controlled by human thought alone. Now comes news of a bot that doesn't need to bother with any human thought at all, thank you very much. It's a "robot scientist" that researchers believe to be the first machine to independently come up with new scientific findings. Aptly, the bot is named Adam.

While we've become accustomed to robots built to repeat a given task many times over, scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales and the U.K's University of Cambridge designed Adam to take a more human approach to scientific inquiry. And while it may not win the Nobel Prize for physics just yet, Adam appears to be doing impressively well for a young scientist, carrying out scientific research automatically, without the need for further human intervention.

As reported in the latest issue of the journal Science, Adam autonomously hypothesized that certain genes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae code for enzymes that catalyze some of the microorganism's biochemical reactions. The yeast is noteworthy, as scientists use it to model more complex life systems.

Adam then devised experiments to test its prediction, ran the experiments using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results, and used those findings to revise its original hypothesis and test it out further. The researchers used their own separate experiments to confirm that Adam's hypotheses were both novel and correct--all the while probably wondering how soon they'd become obsolete.

"This is one of the first systems to get (artificial intelligence) to try and control laboratory automation," Ross King, a professor of computer science who led the research at Aberystwyth University, told Live Science. Current robots, he noted, "tend to do one thing or a sequence of things. The complexity of Adam is that it has cycles."

Adam is a still a prototype, but King's team--which is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council--says they believe their next robot, Eve (don't leave those two in the lab alone together) holds 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.

"Ultimately," King said, "we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories."