Scientists have always worked in a perpetual state of unease concerning whether or not they would get their next grant. Recent funding cuts and the spectre of the global recession have only exacerbated worries about job security. And now this.
It was reported in Science this week that a robot scientist called Adam created by researchers from Aberystwyth University successfully identified 12 genes that encode enzymes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Adam generates hypotheses about the likely locations of genes that encode particular enzymes. He then devises a method to test his hypotheses. He can select the appropriate yeast mutants, incubate cells and measure their growth rates.
We’ve certainly come a long way since the days of Jacques de Vaucanson and his Digesting Duck. While the 18th century’s crowning achievement in robotics was an avian contraption with the ability to defecate, today’s automata are being devised with genuinely useful practical applications in mind.
As The Times notes, ‘robots are proving increasingly valuable because they can carry out large numbers of repetitive tests that in a person would induce boredom and loss of concentration’. In the final year of my biology degree, I decided not to pursue a career in science precisely because I found lab work so mind-numbingly tedious. If we can build machines that do all the mundane tasks for us, so much the better.
We should expect robots to make excellent scientists. The 20th century sociologist Robert K Merton came up with four ‘norms’ of science, a set of ideals to which scientists should aspire. These were communalism – the common ownership of scientific discoveries; universalism – the assessment of hypotheses on the basis of objective, impersonal criteria; disinterestedness – abstention from self-aggrandisement; and organised scepticism – the collective scrutiny of scientific endeavour. These are all qualities we should expect to come naturally to robots (providing we program them in the right way).
Not everybody is quite so enthusiastic about these developments. Understandably, many scientists are becoming slightly nervous about their future careers.
‘I believe many researchers would be threatened by this new technology’, said Daniel Goodman, a systems biologist at Imperial College, London, who also works on yeast. ‘After years of incredibly intense training, “Adams” are going to swoop in to replace human scientists who have worked day and night to get to where they are today. Open-mindness and intellectual flexibility are key attributes in a good scientists. A robot would have thrown away Fleming’s contaminated plate as trash rather than see the potential that lay within.’
Professor Ross King, who led the Aberystwyth team, played down the threat to human jobs. ‘We hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories’, he said. He obviously hasn’t seen The Matrix, or I, Robot.
King’s team are already building a successor to Adam, called Eve. They declined to comment on the suggestion that Eve would be more prone to breaking down than Adam and less able to perform several tasks at once.
What next? Robot writers that will keep me out of a job? Clever algorithms like this one are already rendering the Daily Mail journalist obsolete. Thankfully, intelligent blogging like that what we do at Just A Theory remains the preserve of the human. For now.