Interview with Lee Cronin

The award-winning chemist attempts to explain his reasons for wanting to create a chemical brain, but suggests we won’t be moving to Mars any time soon

October 4, 2018
Lee Cronin

Lee Cronin is the Regius chair of chemistry at the University of Glasgow, where he leads a team of more than 50 researchers. Earlier this year he won a 2018 Royal Society of Chemistry interdisciplinary prize in recognition of his groundbreaking work exploring complex chemical systems and digitising chemistry using artificial intelligence. He recently made headlines for building a robot that uses AI to discover new molecules.

Where and when were you born?
Ipswich, 1 June 1973.

How has this shaped who you are? 
The schools I went to had a big impact – especially secondary school, which was normal and slightly unable to handle me.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Loud, curious and critical.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
Making my first discovery during an undergraduate summer research project. That first discovery is still not published but it has something to do with non-equilibrium (clock) chemistry driving the assembly of complex structures. One day I will repeat it.

What are you working on right now?
Lots of things across four areas: artificial life, digital chemistry, using chemical systems to process information, and the development of chemical computers. Something we are working on now is realising that we can use chemical reactions to do computations.

Have you had a ‘eureka’ moment? 
Yes, many such moments. An exciting one was discovering that I could programme all chemical synthesis. 

Why should we care about your work?
Because I might find out why life started, if aliens exist, how we can discover more drugs, and how we might digitise chemical synthesis, making it easier and safer to make personal medicine possible.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That chemistry is boring.

Why should we be using robots and artificial intelligence in the first place to make chemical discoveries?
Human beings make great explorers but are fragile and expensive to send out of the gravity well of Earth. Elon Musk’s stated aim to get to Mars with humans is simply uneconomic, and not feasible on any timescale I will live to see. So my solution is to develop a robot that has been trained with a new type of AI to explore Mars, and ultimately exploit its resources. The benefits are getting there faster and at a lower cost, with less worry about safety, and also being able to roam Mars remotely.

Is it really worth our time and money planning for life on Mars?
I don’t think we should send humans to Mars, but we should develop “conscious” robots that use chemical brains to explore Mars. We need conscious robots to make decisions, invent around unseen problems, and be adaptive. Today’s AI is not really AI – it is a glorified search engine with some game-playing skills.

Are you able to explain in layperson’s terms what a chemical brain would entail?
Yes – jelly plus conducting polymer plus electrodes connected to a digital programmer.

Are robots going to steal our jobs?

What advice would you give to your younger self? 
Grow your hair longer.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
The obsession with metrics, key performance indicators and other nonsense. University is about critical thinking, not teaching.

What is the best thing about your job?
The best things are the students and smart people you interact with.

And the worst?
The over-audit, but I’m lucky that the University of Glasgow is open minded and supportive.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or go straight into work? 
No. I’d be an entrepreneur, drop out, and make enough money to fund my studies.

What advice do you give to your students?
Don’t worry about the exam or writing the paper – enjoy being confused and being critical.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Remove the teaching excellence framework, the knowledge exchange framework, the research excellence framework and any other measurement of “excellence” that requires the academics to make the case.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing? 
I’d be a mad scientist at home inventing stuff in my shed.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I admire everybody who fights adversity to be curious and pushes on despite being told that they are wrong.

What keeps you awake at night?
Ability to plan, funding-wise; Brexit; and how to explain the new thing I’ve discovered.

What do you do for fun? 
Programming and drinking red wine.

What is your biggest regret?
I don’t have any.

What brings you comfort?
Inventing stuff in my shed.

What saddens you?
Writing documents about documents about documents about documents to get funding.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy? 
Yes. Be critical, direct, and openly stupid.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Wanting to understand the world.

What one thing would improve your working week? 
Going to bed earlier.

Iain Martin, currently vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, will return to Australia to lead Deakin University. Professor Martin will replace Jane den Hollander as head of the Victoria institution in May. The surgeon, who began his academic career at the University of Leeds before moving to the University of Auckland and then the University of New South Wales, described Deakin as an “outstanding exemplar of a university that has delivered regional relevance, global linkages, research excellence and…a very strong educational portfolio that blends the best of campus and digital delivery into a highly supportive educational ecosystem”. 

A new UK medical school, a partnership between the universities of Nottingham and Lincoln, has appointed its first associate dean. Daniel McLaughlin, currently academic director of undergraduate medicine at Newcastle University, will lead the University of Nottingham Lincoln Medical School as it prepares to welcome its first undergraduates in September 2019. Professor McLaughlin said that he was “honoured to have the opportunity to lead the development of…a project that will have a major positive impact on the health and well-being of the people of Lincolnshire”.

Sharon Ellis has been appointed the new director of research services at Queen Mary University of London. Dr Ellis will join the east London institution next month from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where she is director of international science and innovation. 

Dennis McDermott has been named pro vice-chancellor (indigenous) at La Trobe University. He is currently director of the Poche Centres for Indigenous Health and Wellbeing at Flinders University

Geoff Day has been appointed director of marketing and external relations at Edinburgh Napier University. He has previously run his own PR agency in New York, where he was also director of communications at Mercedes-Benz USA.

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