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Adam is not a humanoid robot, but consists of components that include computers, robotic arms, cameras and incubators. ((Courtesy of Jem Rowland/Aberytswyth University))

British scientists have unveiled a robot that can make its own scientific discoveries by coming up with hypotheses, designing experiments, and conducting them all on its own.

"Adam" has already identified the role of several genes in yeast, and the researchers who developed the robot believe it is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge.

"What's new and exciting about Adam is [it is] the first time we've managed to show that a computer can not only think up new scientific ideas, but experimentally test them and decide whether they're true," said Ross King, a computer science professor at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

King is the lead author of a paper published in Friday's issue of Science that describes how Adam was developed by King and colleagues at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge.

King said robots have been used in scientific research before, but only to do repetitive tasks and only with constant human instruction.

'I would have liked…Adam to be an author in our paper, but the editors are a bit stuffy about such things."'— Ross King, Aberystwyth University

"But Adam makes up its own mind what to do," he told CBC News. "It decides what experiments to do, what to test."

Adam is not a humanoid robot, but instead consists of components such as robotic arms, cameras, sensors and incubators that are useful in experiments about the genomics — the genetic library — of baker's yeast, an organism that biologists often use as a model for higher organisms such as human cells.

Some of the components that make up Adam:

  • 4 computers.
  • 7 cameras.
  • 3 robot arms.
  • 3 liquid handlers.
  • A freezer.
  • 3 incubators.
  • 20 environment sensors
  • 2 air filters.
  • 2 barcode readers.
  • Plate slides, a slide cleaner and a slide centrifuge.

The robot has managed to come up with and test 20 hypotheses about what certain genes do. Twelve were brand new and have never been tested before.

The researchers manually tested the same hypotheses and found that they were correct.

"I would have liked … Adam to be an author in our paper," said King, noting that the robot came up with the ideas and did the experimental work. "But the editors are a bit stuffy about such things."

Its software includes databases of information on yeast and other organisms. King said Adam looks for missing pieces of information about the yeast, then examines the databases for similar information about other organisms in order to come up with its hypotheses about the missing pieces.

"I think increasingly computers and robotics will be working in partnership with scientists in laboratories and making science more efficient and better able to solve problems," King said, adding that both humans and robots have strengths and weaknesses.

Over 1,000 experiments per day

One of the robot's strengths include its speed and efficiency — the paper reports that Adam can design and initiate over 1,000 new experiments each day, with each experiment lasting up to five days.

In addition, King said, the knowledge that Adam comes up with is expressed in a logical language designed for computers that is a clearer, more explicit way than human expression in languages such as French or English, "which always has this ambiguity associated with it."

Some of the tasks Adam can do are to:

  • Select yeast strains from a library of strains in a freezer.
  • Place them in individual wells filled with a growth medium.
  • Measure their growth curves.
  • Harvest a specific quantity of cells.
  • Place these in new wells, each containing a special, specific medium.
  • Measure their growth curves.

However, robots are not as flexible as humans in the types of intellectual and physical tasks they can perform.

William Melek, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ontario's University of Waterloo who is involved in robotic design, told the Canadian Press that it is unclear how useful robots like Adam would be.

Should a researcher want to study a different type of organism, the automated robotic set-up could be reused, he said. But to have the artificial intelligence component generate and conduct experiments would require input of expert knowledge by human scientists — a time-consuming and tedious undertaking, Melek added.

"You'd have to customize it every time."

Computer scientists David Waltz of Columbia University and Bruce Buchanan at the University of Pittsburgh were more optimistic about the future of robot scientists. The two published an article on the automation of scientific research for the same issue of Science as King's paper.

"Human-machine partnering systems that match the tasks to what each partner does best can potentially increase the rate of scientific progress dramatically," they wrote, "in the process revolutionizing the practice of science and changing what scientists need to know."

King and his colleagues are already at work on a new, more sophisticated robot called Eve that will work on screening drugs.

In addition, King said, Adam's software will be changed in order to recruit him for new types of experiments.

With files from CBC's Tom Parry and from the Canadian Press