The robot, called Adam, has discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems.
Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesised that certain genes in baker’s yeast code for specific enzymes, which catalyse biochemical reactions in yeast.
The robot then devised experiments to test these predictions, ran the experiments, interpreted the results and repeated the cycle.
Adam is a still a prototype, but Prof Ross King, who led the research at Aberystwyth University, said that his team believes that its next robot, Eve, holds great promise for scientists searching for new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, an infection caused by a type of parasitic worm in the tropics.
Duc Pham, professor of computer-controlled manufacture in the Manufacturing Engineering Centre at
Pham said: ‘This is a clever application of robotics and computer software. Robots don’t tire, they can carry out repetitive work accurately, and computers can search through many possibilities very quickly to mine useful information from massive amounts of data.
‘There are already many such applications in industry and business – for instance, robots are used in the automotive industry to assemble cars, and computers sift through huge amounts of data about our shopping habits to determine how groceries should be arranged in supermarkets.
‘But a robot doing original science? That really catches the imagination. I would not call this a robot scientist, however; it’s more like a junior lab assistant. It will be a long time before computers can replace human scientists.’