There was a time when science produced robots, but a paper published recently in the Automated Experimentation Journal suggests that in the future robots will autonomously produce science. It's not just a matter of cheap labor or taking menial tasks off the hands of researchers; the authors argue that science needs to be uniform and formalized, and AI robot scientists could help us get to that point by developing their own hypotheses and carrying out experiments with minimal human input.
As their models, the authors cite a pair of robo-researcher prototypes, Adam and Eve. While Eve is still under development, she's designed to demonstrate the automation of closed-loop learning, feeding the conclusion of each experiment back into her experimental models. Adam, in service since 2005, has already conducted yeast metabolism studies leading to a variety of conclusions, some of which have been verified in manual biological experiments.
When Eve is ready, the two systems will be combined so they can cross-experiment with one another, which brings us to the real benefit of autonomous, robotic experimentation: formalization. While human experimentation has brought us this far, there are some inherent problems with it: incongruity in experimental methods, competition between researchers that discourages the sharing of information, and the inherent human problem of bias.
Then there's the simple fact that robotic scientists are machines, capable of a battery of tasks that humans simply can't match:
Computational closed-loop learning systems have certain advantages over human scientists: their biases are explicit, they can produce full records of their reasoning processes, they can incorporate large volumes of explicit background knowledge, they can incorporate explicit complex models, they can analyse data much faster, and they do not need to rest.
Autonomous research 'bots could certainly help humans think outside our respective boxes; our own biases can produce tunnel vision in our hypothetical thinking as well as misinterpretation of our experimental results, either of which can lead to bad science. But if we turn over the pursuit of scientific knowledge to autonomous, computer-driven robots will that lead to intellectual laziness on the part of humans? It seems like there's a thin line to tread between increasing our capacity to hypothesize and experiment and creating a scientific community that lists toward complacency.
That is, at least until the robots hypothesize that they would be better off without their human overlords. But that's a topic for another post.
Probably not going to happen, sure perhaps automated routines that test known probabilites but the robots will not be capable of the "aaa ha "moment or evaluate a mistake as possiblity in a related area of research. There are many research groups around the country like 1RobotCompanion, MIT, Cal-Tech who are actively designing autonomous robots/brains that can make decisions based on unprogrammed results. Lets hope someone is eventually successful.
This idea has merit. Human scientists are freed up to focus on the theoretical, big-picture ideas, and formulate what questions to ask/ what experiments to run. The robots perform the dull, mind-numbing tasks like preparing lab materials, performing the experiments, and making statistical analyses of their results.
Letting the machines handle the tools also reduces the potential for major laboratory screw-ups. For instance, one poor lady from New York, Darrie Eason, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was given a double mastectomy, went through chemotherapy, spent a fortune on treatment ... then discovered that SHE HAD NEVER HAD BREAST CANCER! It happened because some idiot lab tech "cut corners" and mixed up Eason's sample with that of another woman who had the disease.
Obviously, this is an extreme case, and automated lab work probably won't eliminate all forms of error. But at least machines don't get lazy or distracted while on the job. And they don't fudge results to support their hypotheses or get grant money.
I love that the scientists put a "OverLord 2" sticker on Eve... I would guess that Adam is "OverLord 1"? It's almost a shame to use up such a good name on what could only be described as a Minion, and a low level one at that.
This makes sense. Assuming the robots would still be monitored by humans, can't actually do more than a few experiments on their own, and can't draw the ultimate conclusion themselves, this would accelerate scientific advancement a great deal. With the robot doing all the experiments, scientists could do a whole lot more at once, and their skill sets would then focus more on data analysis, which is at the heart of laboratory experimentation.
However, I don't believe robots will ever completely replace field research, and I don't want them to - that's one of the most fun parts of science! (I know the article didn't mention that, but I wanted to put in my two cents).