Saturday science subject: Robot scientists

— 2:50 PM on April 4, 2009

Could robots and artificial intelligence one day supplant human beings for basic scientific work? It's certainly looking like a possibility. ScienceNow reports that two teams of scientists in the United States and Britain have developed systems capable of analyzing data and forming hypotheses:

Computer scientist Ross King of Aberystwyth University along with systems biologists at the University of Cambridge, U.K. . . . have developed a robot named Adam to identify genes involved in yeast metabolism. Using algorithms programmed by scientists, Adam formulates hypotheses about the origins of "orphan enzymes": enzymes for which scientists have been unable to identify the encoding genes. The robot then plans and executes experiments to test its hypotheses--selecting yeast mutants from a collection, incubating cells, and measuring their growth rates. As King's team reports this week in Science, Adam came up with 20 hypotheses about genes encoding 13 enzymes, 12 of which it confirmed.

The second paper, also in Science, reports a similar feat in physics. Cornell University computer scientists Michael Schmidt and Hod Lipson devised an algorithm that will deduce laws about the motion of a nonlinear dynamical system--for example, a pendulum suspended from the end of another pendulum. The dynamics of such a system can be captured in a mathematical function called a Hamiltonian, which is essentially an expression of the system's energy. Schmidt and Lipson's robot can deduce the Hamiltonian and other key mathematical quantities for a system by observing its motion.

Now, while these systems do break new ground, ScienceNow points out that they probably won't be winning Nobel prizes anytime soon. Adam "hasn't made a conceptual breakthrough," the article says, while the Cornell robot "only 'discovers' Hamiltonians and other functions that a sharp graduate student might quickly figure out."

Nevertheless, University of Pittsburgh computer scientist Bruce Buchanan predicts that future, improved versions of such systems "may come up with discoveries humans would never have imagined."

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