Should we make way for the robots and leave the lab?

Does the success of 'Adam' herald a future of automated research? asks Jesse Whittock

May 7, 2009

A little over a month ago, a researcher called Adam formulated a hypothesis about the genetic characteristics of yeast. He conducted a number of experiments to test his theories, and his findings were published in the journal Science.

Not that remarkable, you may think - except that Adam is a fully autonomous cybernetic robot created by a research team.

Ross King, project leader at the research lab at Aberystwyth University, has since stated his intention to one day see research teams made up of humans and robots. Adam, a prototype machine, is soon to be joined by an advanced Eve robot. It is hoped that the two will work together to develop anti-malarial drugs.

Adam's success has raised some serious questions about the future application of academic research. Could robots replace academics? What are the ethical implications? Was Adam just a gimmick unlikely to be repeated any time soon?

The expert opinion, it seems, is that Adam is no scientific messiah. Noel Sharkey, ethicist and professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, played down Adam's significance. But he was impressed by his time-saving potential - Adam performed about 1,000 tests a day, significantly speeding up the research process.

Dr Sharkey said Adam was "an autonomous (research) lab" that was full of potential but would always require human intelligence to function. "We don't understand the human brain properly, so how would we create a fully functioning, thinking robot? We couldn't," he said.

Although some people worry about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to "lie" or to actively work against humans, Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton, dismissed such concerns.

Having grappled with existential questions that arise from AI, he is clear that responsibility for any flaws in technology belongs to the creator.

"Computers are data-processors. They no more 'lie' or 'tell the truth' than a letter - or mouth - does: it is the author who lies or tells the truth," he said. "And if the computer's data are simply harvested, rather than authored, there's still no 'lie' if they are incorrect: it is just an error.

"And even their correctness/incorrectness depends on the user, the user's interpretation and the relation between that interpretation and reality," Dr Harnad said.

He added that only Luddite academics could see Adam, who removes "mindless man-hours" from experiments, as a threat.

Dr Sharkey said that researchers could look to automated robots to help them improve research.

He thinks robots may help create jobs. People worried that they would lose their jobs when the internet took off, he said, but that did not happen. "It's the same here. If more data are produced every day, there will be more opportunity for researchers to correlate new theories."

Dr Sharkey conceded that some lab technicians may find themselves surplus to requirements because robots work so much faster than humans. But he emphasised that robots could tackle the laborious menial tasks that slow research, which gives Adam strong commercial potential.

"It's not high level, but it could save a lot of time and money. This could have good commercial value, but I'm cautious about calling it a robot scientist," he said.

Others are unconvinced about commercial potential. Duc Pham, professor of computer-controlled manufacture at Cardiff University, does not think robots could be viable in the research lab because of their cost and an uncertain market.

"I'm not sure whether one will ever (mass) produce robots to do that kind of work, because I don't know if there would be a mass market."

According to Dr Pham, robotics research will focus on more affordable and immediately practical applications. "The population is getting older, and the cost of human help is going to increase. I expect to see on the market robots that cost the same as a family car. I think we will use more robots at home."

Whether such forecasts about the future of robots come to pass or not, it is clear that the most important element in research will remain people. As Dr Harnad explained: "Machines don't discover. People discover, and people design machines to help them discover."

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