Welsh University announces intelligent robot conducting biology experiments

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Adam is a robot developed by Welsh Aberystwyth University researchers which combines artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation to independently conduct and analyse biological laboratory research.

"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 and lead researcher at Aberystwyth University, "Adam makes up its own mind what to do. It decides what experiments to do, what to test." He says that for other lab experiments the hardware is already in place, the only step needed is to change the software.

The artificial intelligence alone spans three computers which holds the databases and analytical software to enable Adam to think. For the yeast experiment, Adam was loaded with databases which hold known information relating to yeasts and organisms. Adam compared all fields in the database to find the areas of missing information from which he devised 20 hypotheses.

Adam's AI is connected to robotic arms, sensors, incubators and cameras which enable Adam to start over 1,000 individual experiments every day and follow their progress over a week.

A part of the process is that Adam's AI can cycle and analyze the results of the experiments as well doing routine repetitious lab work. Following Adam's testing, King's team manually tested three of Adam's hypotheses and found that the robot's conclusions were correct, and each was a breakthrough to the scientific community.

Adam has spawned discussion amongst researchers. William Melek, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ontario's University of Waterloo, has noted that to set up the AI needed for subsequent experiments involving new biological variables and criteria, the human expertise would be time consuming to customize it. The usefulness would be limited therefore to the allotment of human input needed to set up Adam.

David Waltz of Columbia University and Bruce Buchanan of the University of Pittsburgh say that "For the foreseeable future, the prospect of using automated systems as assistants holds vast promise as these assistants are becoming not only faster but much broader in their capabilities -- more knowledgeable, more creative, and more self-reflective," They note the potential of such lab assistants which may more efficiently process the research data.

It was reported that Adam cost about $1million in production costs and this was weighed against the costs of hiring lab techs. King said, We made many mistakes and learned from Adam. Eve is a much cleaner design."

Eve is the second AI computer under development by Professor King's research team. Eve's artificial intelligence will be enhanced to analyze compounds needed for medicinal drugs which may treat killer diseases such as malaria.