See Inside January 2011

Rise of the Robo Scientists

Machines can devise a hypothesis, carry out experiments to test it, and assess results--without human intervention

Illustration by David Johnson

Is it possible to automate scientific discovery? I don’t mean automating experiments. I mean: Is it possible to build a machine—a robot scientist—that can discover new scientific knowledge? My colleagues and I have spent a decade trying to develop one.

We have two main motives. The first is to better understand science. As famed physicist Richard Feynman noted: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” In this philosophy, trying to build a robot scientist forces us to make concrete engineering decisions involving the relation between abstract and physical objects and between observed and theoretical phenomena, as well as the ways hypotheses are created.

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