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Robot Theorizes, Proves Own Scientific Discoveries

"Adam" can conduct experiments and form hypotheses to explain the results.

Scientists at the United Kingdom's Cambridge and Aberystwyth universities have created a "robot scientist" that they believe is the first automaton to make its own scientific discoveries.

The robotic computer system, named Adam, automates the scientific process, carrying out each stage on its own. The robot has discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of baker's yeast, or Saccharomyces cerevisiae, according to the scientists. Baker's yeast can serve as a model for more complex life forms. The scientists said their manual experiments confirmed the robot's hypotheses and its findings.

Adam used artificial intelligence to hypothesize that some genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes cause biochemical reactions in yeast. The robot came up with experiments to test the hypothesis, ran the experiments using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results, and repeated the cycle.

Ross King, a computer scientist at Aberystwyth in Wales, worked with systems biologists at the University of Cambridge. The team plans to build a second robot, Eve, to help scientists find new drugs to combat diseases like malaria and schistosomiasis, a tropical parasitic infection.

King said scientists could one day have teams of robots and people working together in laboratories. He said the detailed records of biological experiments that are sometimes "irksome for human scientists" are easy for robots.

Stephen Oliver, co-author of the paper and professor of systems biology and biochemistry at England's University of Cambridge said Adam's uniqueness comes from the machine's ability to reason and come up with theories.

"As we start to consider living systems in a holistic manner, the complexity of such systems means that it will become increasingly difficult for scientists to formulate hypotheses unaided," Oliver said in a prepared statement. "Thus it will be necessary for human and robot scientists to work together to achieve the goals of biological research."

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council funded the work, which was published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.


Each year, InformationWeek honors the nation's 500 most innovative users of business technology. Companies with $250 million or more in revenue are invited to apply for the 2009 InformationWeek 500 before May 1.

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