ADAM IN ACTION: "Adam" consists of a number of computers, robotic arms and lab devices working together autonomously to perform experiments, hypothesize about the results, and then test those hypotheses. Image: © JEN ROWLAND
This time, for "Adam and Eve" knowledge is not forbidden—it's their mission. Working with computers and robots in the lab, scientists have been able to generate exponentially increasing amounts of data as the technology improves. Concerned they lack the manpower to translate the deluge of raw information into results, researchers are programming their mechanical lab assistants to share more of the workload. A prime example of this is "Adam," an autonomous mini laboratory that uses computers, robotics and lab equipment to conduct scientific experiments, automatically generate hypotheses to explain the resulting data, test these hypotheses, and then interpret the results.
Researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales and England's University of Cambridge report in Science today that they designed Adam—which is 16.4 feet (five meters) in length, with a height and width of 9.8 feet (three meters)—to perform basic biology experiments with minimal human intervention. They describe how the bot operates by relating how he carried out one of his tasks, in this case to find out more about the genetic makeup of baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems.
Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesized that certain genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes that catalyze biochemical reactions. The robot devised experiments to test these beliefs, ran the experiments, and interpreted the results. Because biological organisms are so complex, the details of biological experiments must be recorded in great detail so those experiments can faithfully be reproduced, even if this record-keeping is tedious, says lead study author Ross King, an Aberystwyth computer science professor. "With a computer, all of the results and conclusions and structure are expressed in logic," he says, "that can uniformly be understood by other researchers."