First science discovery for robot

02 April 2009

Professor Ross King with Adam in the background
Professor Ross King with Adam in the background
Scientists at Aberystwyth University have created a Robot Scientist which the researchers believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge. The robot, called Adam, is a computer system that fully automates the scientific process.

The work, which has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales amongst others, is published today (2 April 2009) in the journal Science.

Prof Ross King, who led the research at Aberystwyth's Department of Computer Science, said: “Ultimately we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories”.

The scientists at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge designed Adam to carry out each stage of the scientific process automatically without the need for further human intervention.

The robot has discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of the baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems. The researchers have used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam’s hypotheses were both novel and correct.

“Because biological organisms are so complex it is important that the details of biological experiments are recorded in great detail. This is difficult and irksome for human scientists, but easy for Robot Scientists.”

Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesised that certain genes in baker’s yeast code for specific enzymes which catalyse biochemical reactions in yeast. The robot then devised experiments to test these predictions, ran the experiments using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results and repeated the cycle.

Adam is still a prototype, but Prof King’s team believe that their next robot, Eve, holds great 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.

Prof King continued: “If science was more efficient it would be better placed to help solve society’s problems. One way to make science more efficient is through automation. Automation was the driving force behind much of the 19th and 20th century progress, and this is likely to continue.”


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