Archive for the 'Automation and Future' Category

The Limits of Automation

“What remain to be determined are the limits of automation” says Ross King and coworkers in a very recent article in Science [1]. The work is interesting: the development of a Robot Scienctist, called “Adam”, which has the ability to generate autonomous functional genomics hypotheses about orphan genes responsible of metabolic reactions. Using the team’s words, the idea is to “originates hypotheses to explain observations, devises experiments to test these hypotheses, physically runs the experiments using a laboratory robot, interprets the results to falsify hypotheses inconsistent with the data, and then repeats the cycle” [2]. Adam is completely independent; only needs the human assistance to restore supplies and to remove waste. Reading the article, it seems that the question is not “are we going to be replaced by robot scientists?”, but “when are we going to be replaced?”

Dr. King and Adam

Dr. King and Adam

I guess that the main bottleneck to that “when” could be the money, specially in our times. In smaller countries, such a robot would be too much expensive. Imagine that in our country (Chile), supplies and reagents are very expensive (sometimes, three or even four times more expensive that the price in USA or Europe). But an additional stone in the road is obvious: at the time, robot scientists could only handle with species such as
Saccharomyces and maybe E. coli. Adam could demonstrate 12 out of 20 hyphotheses generated, and in the case of a specific set of genes, “it sheds light on, and perhaps solves, a 50-year-old puzzle”. Could a Robot Scientist handle with the complexity of species such as frogs, chicks and mice? Even more, when we are discovering that non-coding RNA is extremely important in such organisms [3], we are far from establish a clear and comprehensive picture of the “omics” of Mus musculus and Homo sapiens. Adam work with mutant strains of yeast; how could do the same with humans? It seems that the potential of such devices (as Adam) is restricted, by the meantime, only to “lower” organisms. An additional argument has been proposed [4]. If the advantage of a Robot Scientist is to release human scientists from “wet lab” in order to allow them to work in the interpretation of data, thinking and ultimately writing papers (in summary, high-level creative tasks), are we prepared for such a freedom? Specially when some lab heads still “treat postgrads and postdocs as a cheap source of menial labour, rather than educating them to become tomorrow’s creative research leaders”? [4]. I have to acknowledge the contributions of informatics to our work; nowadays, text and data mining tools are necessary to handle the increasing amount of data, papers and references (literatury now is far from our capabilities; [5]); system biology tools allow us to analyze information and unveil new discoveries and hyphoteses, and even more. However, altough a Robot Scientist could be a valuable tool in our daily work, we have to start thinking and questioning if we are ready for such a change.

References

[1] King et al, Science, Vol 324, 85-89, 2009

[2] King et al, Nature, Vol 427, 247-252, 2004

[3] Amaral et al, Science, Vol 319, 1787-1789, 2008

[4] Nature, Vol 427, 181, 2004.

[5] Waltz and Buchanan. Science, Science, Vol 324, 43-44, 2009

Additional links (with pictures):

[5] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30016175/

[6] http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/media/releases/2009/090402_robot_scientist.html

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