The scientists designed the robot, called Adam, to carry out each stage of the scientific process automatically without the need for further human intervention. The robot 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 used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam's hypotheses were both novel and correct.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University created the robot, which the researchers believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge.
Steve Oliver, one of Adam's creators and Professor of Systems Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, said: "The novel thing is that Adam is able to formulate hypotheses on its own and test them. In this project, a machine has discovered new scientific knowledge."
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. Thus it will be necessary for human and robot scientists to work together to achieve the goals of biological research.
"It is not the management and analysis of complex data that is the big deal about Adam, it is the ability of the machine to reason with those data and make proposals about how a living thing works."
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.
Professor Oliver of Wolfson College and his post-doc Pnar Pir participated in the construction of the logical model of yeast metabolism that formed Adam's background knowledge. They also designed the basic experimental format in terms of media, growth conditions, etc., and analysed Adam's hypotheses to figure out why human scientists failed to connect those genes to the orphan enzymes.
The robot, called Adam, is a computer system that fully automates the scientific process.
The work, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) was published in the journal Science.