Computers and robots have helped automate science dramatically over the last 70 years. In most cases, this involved so-called ‘brute force’ applications, where the scope of calculations involved sucked up a lot of time and required a lot of people. Computers helped displace the legions of human calculators – usually female - employed to do astronomical or ballistic calculations by hand (read When Computers Were Human). Computers and robotics helped make genome mapping something that can be done in months rather than decades.
In what could prompt another shift in scientific human resources, there are reports (H/T Wired Science) of a robot actually forming and testing hypotheses. Working in the baker’s yeast genome, the robot Adam worked to fill in gaps in understanding of the yeast’s metabolism. By scanning a database of similar genes and enzymes from other organisms, Adam utilized algorithms to determine possible genes in the yeast genome that would correspond to orphan enzymes – enzymes that had no known gene coding for them. After forming an hypothesis, Adam would conduct the experiment, analyze the data, and refine the hypothesis. The robot’s designers recently confirmed by hand Adam’s discovery of three genes that coded for an orphan enzyme.
At the moment, designing these robots will continue to be a specialized affair – one robot for a particular area of research will likely be different from a robot for a different area of research. But if there is the potential of standardizing, or at least spreading, such robot development, how and where science can be conducted could change dramatically.