Robot Scientists

Increasingly it seems that anything a human can do, a robot can do better (except love). Buzzfeed has a list of 15 Robots That Will Change the World, they include bots that can play violin, juggle, wash and cut your hair, and even solve a Rubiks cube. While many of these feats may seem trivial (except the Rubiks cube one obviously!), robots are also capable of performing meaningful tasks. The field of chemistry is seeing robots become lab assistants, and they are pretty good too. The robots are faster, more precise, and presumably less whiny than any summer student. These robot assistants can also work with very hazardous materials, like virulent strains of influenza or radiation, with little worry of exposure and death.

Similar robots are making great headway in the field of toxicology. The USEPA’s Computational Toxicology (CompTox) research program has developed Tox21, a program which uses robotics technology to screen thousands of chemicals for potential toxicity. This robotic system (seen below) can screen upwards of 10 000 chemicals!

Tox21’s robot system significantly reduces the cost and duration of chemical testing- a typical researcher may expect to work on 10-20 chemicals a year. Tox21 is testing chemicals found in industrial and consumer products, food additives and drugs, for evidence they might lead to adverse health effects. It does this through the use of microplates. Each plate contains 1536 small wells that can hold various living animal cells, (typically skin, liver, or brain cells of rats or humans), and a sample of a particular chemical. The robot then scans the wells using a digital imaging device, to detect any abnormalities in the cells, as pre-determined by the human researchers. Any positive results are flagged, and it is then up to human researchers to do further studies on the compound in question. Another example of high throughput automated lab robot performing the Ames test, is shown below.

The future of space exploration (left, or right?).

While these advancements are pretty amazing, they pale in comparison to the advancements robots have made in the field of space exploration. The future of space exploration currently belongs to robots. Mars is getting ready to receive its latest rover, Curiosity (which has a neat Guelph connection), the latest in a great line of robot explorers. The question of who is better suited to explore outer space, robots or humans or cyborgs, is a heated one. Many believe that the practical, economical, and ethical reasons, make robotic missions the clear answer for future space missions. Others believe that the sense of awe, inspiration, and even long term survival of the human race, are the main reasons why manned missions should continue. Ultimately, these space exploring robots will serve as the trailblazers for human exploration, and that is a good thing, I just wish we still had manned explorations happening, I am part of a generation that has never seen man on the moon, or really any further out there than in the low earth orbit. It sure would be amazing to feel that sense of wonderment the world felt as they watched those intrepid explorers of the Apollo missions walk on the moon. For all the jobs that robots can take away (e.g., violinist, barber, chemist, lab assistant, toxicologist), I hope astronaut is never one of them.


One thought on “Robot Scientists

  1. Pingback: Round-Up Ready: A Year in Blogging Edition | On a Quasi-Related Note

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