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Robot scientist becomes first machine to discover new scientific knowledge

2 April 2009

Scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have created a Robot Scientist which the researchers believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge. The robot, called Adam, is a computer system that fully automates the scientific process. The work will be published tomorrow (03 April 2009) in the journal Science.

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Prof Ross King, who led the research at Aberystwyth University, said: "Ultimately we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories".

The scientists at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge designed Adam to carry out each stage of the scientific process automatically without the need for further human intervention. The robot 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. The researchers have used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam’s hypotheses were both novel and correct.

"Because biological organisms are so complex it is important that the details of biological experiments are recorded in great detail. This is difficult and irksome for human scientists, but easy for Robot Scientists."

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 using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results and repeated the cycle.

Adam is a still a prototype, but Prof King’s team believe that their 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.

Prof King continued: "If science was more efficient it would be better placed to help solve society’s problems. One way to make science more efficient is through automation. Automation was the driving force behind much of the 19th and 20th century progress, and this is likely to continue."

Prof Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "Computers play a fundamental role in the scientific process, which is becoming increasingly automated, for instance in drug design and DNA sequencing. This has led to more scientific data, increasingly available on the web, which in turn requires an increased use of computers to analyse these data. Robot scientists could provide a useful tool for managing such data and knowledge, making scientific procedures easier and more efficient. This kind of learning will become even more important as we move further towards integrative and predictive biology in the era of Web 2.0 and the Semanti Web."

ENDS

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Notes to editors

Prof Kell contributed to early work on this project before joining BBSRC. He is not an author on this paper.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

About Aberystwyth University

Established in 1872, Aberystwyth University's twenty-first century mission is to be a first-class, internationally-competitive, teaching and research University which is responsive to the needs of its local community, of Wales and of the wider world.

Aberystwyth University's Computational Biology Group has gained world-wide recognition for its work on both the automation and the formalisation of science. The group's advances in machine learning have led to its deep involvement in solving important biological problems in functional genomics, systems biology and metabolomics, and also chemical problems including drug design and coherent control. The Computational Biology Group works closely with Aberystwyth's Intelligent Robotics Research Group, which has pioneered work in bio-inspired robotics, developmental learning, space robotics and medical imaging and also with research groups in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), formed in April 2008 following the merger into the University of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER Wales).

For more information see: www.aber.ac.uk

About the University of Cambridge

As the University of Cambridge celebrates its eight-hundredth anniversary in 2009, it is looking to the future. Its mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. It admits the very best and brightest students, regardless of background, and offers one of the UK’s most generous bursary schemes.

The University of Cambridge’s reputation for excellence is known internationally and reflects the scholastic achievements of its academics and students, as well as the world-class original research carried out by its staff. Some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs occurred at the University, including the splitting of the atom, invention of the jet engine and the discoveries of stem cells, plate tectonics, pulsars and the structure of DNA. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, the University has nurtured some of history’s greatest minds and has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other UK institution with over 80 laureates.

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