This has not been a good twelve months for people concerned that Ray Kurtzweil’s singularity will look less like the Jetsons and more like the Terminator franchise, or that creepy film from the Animatrix. Big dog was bad enough before some joker put horns on it. Then I had to read about the guy in Alabama who invented and built the world’s first no-recoil fully automatic 12-gauge shotgun and, oh, by the way, has a passion for robots.
Not creeped out? Try this.
In a laboratory at Aberystwyth University, Wales, a scientist called Adam is doing some experiments. He is trying to find the genes responsible for producing some important enzymes in yeast, and he is going about it in a very familiar way. Based on existing knowledge, Adam is coming up with new hypotheses and designing experiments to test them. He carries them out, records and evaluates the results, and comes up with new questions. All of this is part and parcel of a typical scientist’s life but there is one important difference that sets Adam apart – he’s a robot.[…] In a space the size of a small van, Adam contains a library of yeast strains in a freezer, two incubators, three pipettes for transferring liquid (one of which can manage 96 channels at once), three robot arms, a washer, a centrifuge, several cameras and sensors, and no less than four computers controlling the whole lot. All of this kit allows Adam to carry out his own research and to do it tirelessly – carrying out over 1000 experiments and making over 200,000 observations every day. All a technician needs to do is to keep Adam stocked up with fresh ingredients, take away waste and run the occasional clean. […] Adam has a massive knowledge of the yeast metabolism – the chemical reactions that rage within its cell, and the thousands of genes, proteins and chemicals involved in these reactions. It has been loaded with several pieces of software that allow it to use this data to run its own experiments.
Like any good scientist, it starts by making hypotheses. It looks for all chemical reactions in yeast that involve orphan enzymes and it works out which would affect the growth of yeast if disabled. It searches its database for the group of enzymes that catalyse these reactions and looks for genes that code for these enzymes in other species. Finally, it scans the yeast genome for matching genes (Adam is an evolutionary biologist too – it “knows” that even very distinct species have genes that are very similar and do similar things).
At the end of it, Adam has a list of potential genes that could code for the orphan enzymes, and it knows that it can test its hypotheses by deleting these genes and looking at the effects on the yeast. It does just that, comparing the speed at which mutated and normal strains grow. For each orphan enzyme, Adam identified chemicals that it works with (metabolites) and grew the different yeast strains on special liquids containing or lacking these metabolites.
Adam’s equipment allows it to run several of these trials at the same time. It has the instruments it needs to measure the development of the yeast, the logical language it needs to record the data and the statistical software it needs to analyse it. Once the results are in, it can start the whole process all over again.
Let’s recap. ADAM, the robot, plans experiments, completes them autonomously, analyzes the data, comes up with novel hypotheses and tests them with follow-up experiments. ADAM’s human assistant keeps the fluids topped up and occasionally brushes the robot arms with a swiffer.
How disturbing is this? Well first, I think of myself as pretty productive as scientists go. I finished three experiments today and wrapped up less of a paper revision than I would have liked. I attended two meetings, installed and tested some analysis software and picked up enough from three or four papers that I will probably remember them. That feels pretty good.
Anyway, it would feel good if I didn’t think too much about that robot with the too-cute-by-half acronym. For a similar experience I could also measure my blogging against the work of Steve Benen, Andrew Sullivan and Yglesias as if they were all one dude. Plus the entire Huffington Post. We people will tell ourselves that there is a serious quality factor when a person does the work. Maybe it is even true. Can it write its own papers? Um, a programmer probably could write an AI that can learn grammar and skim related papers for style tips. So forget that. Can a robot teach a class? Maybe, yeah. Can a robot schmooze at the bar after conferences? I don’t think so! So there. My jerb is safe.
Then there is the more minor point that ADAM has no a priori reason to care whether the units he’s mutagenizing are yeast or people*. If that sounds familiar, it means that you are a dork like me and you know that’s the bleeping plot of the new Terminator movie. But the important point is that a guy’s got to eat. If this thing applies for a visa I’m buying a trucker hat.
(*) Yes I know, that is hardly an issue right now. I’m talking proof of principle, people.