Submitting InstitutionAberystwyth University
Unit of AssessmentComputer Science and Informatics
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing
Summary of the impact
This impact case concerns the stimulation of public discourse, informing
the awareness, attitudes and understanding of the public as to the
potential for automating science, and the consequences that then arise
regarding ethics, rights and the acquisition of knowledge. It also
concerns debate among legal practitioners.
The Robot Scientist was the first system to fully automate the process of
scientific investigation. This work showed that it was possible. The idea
was immediately picked up by the popular press and covered worldwide (the
fourth most significant discovery in 2009 according to TIME magazine,
reported by TV, radio, national newspapers and magazines, and bloggers).
It engaged the public in debate about AI, robotics, lab automation, and
This work on the automation of science encompassed the generation of
scientific hypotheses, the design of experiments which would discriminate
between the hypotheses, the execution of the experiments on laboratory
robots, the analysis of the results and the model-update to complete the
investigation cycle and feed into the next round of hypothesis generation.
The work was carried out at Aberystwyth, the majority from 2004 to 2009,
with some work after this date, and prototypes which were investigated
before this time (our early work was the winner of the BCS Machine
Intelligence Award in 2006). The following are the research areas and
technologies which were brought together to make the Robot Scientist:
Lab automation: Our automation requirements pushed technology to
limits that other laboratories still do not yet use, and industry is not
yet able to provide [3.1]. We required lights-out reliable automation for
on-the-fly-designed yeast growth experiments that took up to 5 days to
complete, and ran in overlapping batches. To achieve this we worked with a
company (Caliper Life Sciences) to specify, build and test the hardware
needed. We then had to further develop software, create monitoring
systems, engineer our own equipment modifications (for problems such as
temperature, humidity, contamination, dessication, gripper pressure and
tolerance), develop biological protocols, create user and machine
interfaces, and generally perform robot maintenance.
Lab information management: This required the formalisation of lab
protocols down to the level where they could be automated, and thus led to
the creation of one of the first ontologies to express biomedical
protocols, and to a discussion of the issues in formalising protocols to
such depth [3.2]. The substantial relational database designed to support
the automated collection and recording of far more data than human
biologists collect was developed and published as AutoLabDB [3.3]. This
database schema is re-usable by other automated laboratories.
Models of Systems Biology: Computational models of yeast
metabolism were constructed and released as part of this work [3.4, 3.5].
Aberystwyth became part of an EU consortium ("UniCellSYS") to understand
and model the fundamental characteristics of eukaryote unicellular
organism biology, concentrating on yeast, and work is ongoing to refine
the models of yeast metabolism. One of our contributions to this work was
to create new hypotheses about parts of the model, and test out the
results on our lab automation, providing real data to support these
Inductive Logic Programming: We made use of logic based models
(using Prolog) and relational learning methods to model metabolism, to
interpret the complex data produced by the Robot Scientist, and to provide
automated hypothesis generation [3.5, 3.6].
Hypothesis generation: Two methods of automatic inference were
investigated in order to generate new hypothesis from the model: logical
abduction and the replication of human process of reasoning (gene sequence
similarity implying gene function similarity) [3.6].
Yeast deletion strain biology: A new method of gene deletion was
investigated (and proven to work) which is amenable to automation for a
Robot Scientist but does not leave genomic scars, and hence can be used to
delete multiple genes, and investigate more complex genetic effects.
We brought together these strands of research to create a physical
robotic system in the laboratory, which used AI techniques to produce new
The research was carried out by a team at Aberystwyth, including Ross
King (PI) (01/11/1996-31/01/2012), Wayne Aubrey (01/06/2009-28/02/2011),
Emma Byrne (13/03/2006-18/01/2008),
Amanda Clare (01/11/2006), Maria Liakata (01/06/2005-31/12/2012), Chuan
Lu (01/02/2005-31/03/2008 (IBERS); 01/04/2008), Jem Rowland
(01/06/1980-30/09/2012), Larisa Soldatova (05/04/2004-04/04/2012), Andrew
Sparkes (05/12/2005-30/04/2011), Ken Whelan (03/12/2001-30/09/2010), Mike
Young (01/11/1977-31/08/2011) and Aberystwyth research technicians.
References to the research
[3.1] Sparkes, A., King, R. D., Aubrey, W., Benway, M., Byrne, E., Clare,
A., Liakata, M., Markham, M., Whelan, K. E., Young, M., Rowland, J. (2010)
An Integrated Laboratory Robotic System for Autonomous Discovery of Gene
Function JALA 15 (1), 33-40. doi:10.1016/j.jala.2009.10.001.
[3.2] Soldatova, L., Aubrey, W., King, R. D. and Clare, A. (2008) The
EXACT description of biomedical protocols. Bioinformatics 2008 24:
i295-i303. Special issue for ISMB 2008. doi:10.1093/bioinformatics/btn156.
[3.3] Sparkes, A. and Clare, A. (2012) AutoLabDB: a substantial open
source database schema to support a high-throughput automated laboratory,
Bioinformatics, 28(10) 1390-1397. doi:10.1093/bioinformatics/bts140. REF2
[3.4] PD. Dobson, K. Smallbone, D. Jameson, E. Simeonidis, K. Lanthaler,
P. Pir, C. Lu, N. Swainston, WB. Dunn, P. Fisher, D. Hull, M. Brown, O.
Oshota, NJ. Stanford, DB. Kell, R. King, SG. Oliver, RD. Stevens and P.
Mendes, Further developments towards a genome-scale metabolic model of
yeast. BMC Systems Biology, 2010; 4:145. doi:10.1186/1752-0509-4-145. REF2
[3.5] Whelan, K. E. and King, R. D. (2008) Using a logical model to
predict the growth of yeast. BMC Bioinformatics 2008, 9:97
[3.6] King, R. D., Rowland, J., Oliver, S. G., Young, M., Aubrey, W.,
Byrne, E., Liakata, M., Markham, M., Pir, P., Soldatova, L. N., Sparkes,
A., Whelan, K. E., Clare, A. (2009) The Automation of Science. Science
324(5923):85-89, 3rd April 2009. doi:10.1126/science.1165620. REF2
[3.7] BBSRC BB/D00425X/1 (Robot Adam, £587289, A robot scientist for
yeast systems biology)
[3.8] BBSRC BB/F008228/1 (Robot Eve, £1029580, A robot scientist for drug
design and chemical genetics),
[3.9] SRIF2 and SRIF3 funding for the robot hardware (approx £450K and
£540K for the two robots).
[3.10] RAEng/EPSRC Research Fellowship (Amanda Clare, approx £500K,
Engineering the Intelligent Scientific Laboratory),
[3.11] BBSRC BB/G000662/1 (£100K, The Modelling Apprentice: A tool to aid
the formation of cell signalling models).
[3.12] EU FP7 UNICELLSYS (£298424, Eukaryotic unicellular organism
biology — systems biology of the control of cell growth and proliferation)
Details of the impact
The Robot Scientist was chosen as the fourth most significant discovery
in 2009 according to TIME magazine. TIME stated that "In April, 'Adam,' a
machine designed at Aberystwyth University in Wales, became the first
robotic system to make a novel scientific discovery with virtually no
human intellectual input". They went on to say that this was a "major
breakthrough" and "the first to complete the cycle from hypothesis to
experiment to reformulated hypothesis without human intervention" [5.1].
Our research had led to a paper in Science in April 2009. This paper
described the project as a whole, the automation setup, the philosophical
implications, and the new biological knowledge that had been discovered.
The high profile of the journal helped to bring the paper to the attention
of the media. The research group and the University also helped to
encourage interest in the work by providing video, images, a detailed set
of web pages, and a preprint of the paper online.
The Robot Scientist has now appeared in national newspapers around the
world, including the US, Australia and Singapore (newspapers included the
Times, Financial Times, Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, Straits Times,
New York Times and others [5.7]). The work has also been discussed on
radio, TV, and magazines, online news sites and in technology magazines.
These included the BBC, Wired, NewScientist, Scientific American, CNET,
Reuters and others [5.4,5.5,5.6,5.8,5.9]. It also now has its own
Wikipedia page [5.12].
To give some examples of the impression made on the public we can look at
the comments they left next to online articles. The NewScientist article
received 62 comments from the public, including "I've been looking forward
to living through leaps in human history like this" and "This is going to
speed scientific progress exponentially. Hurts my mind just thinking about
the possibilities...". Comments left after the article in Wired include
the concerned "Why are we compelled to build machines that do our thinking
for us?... I for one am not looking to replace myself with a machine" and
the philosophical "No matter how many 'scientific discoveries' these
robots make, does it count until a conscious entity (for now that means
us) says that it is a scientific discovery?"
The internet also produced many widely read blog posts debating the
issues that are raised by the prospect of an automated scientist. The
public engaged with the idea and left many comments on these blogs. While
some fearful reactions were raised by the public, there was also a hugely
positive response, and it would seem that the public can understand the
potential for greater knowledge that can come from the automation, and
that this is inspiring. An example of a comment posted following a blog
post written by Ed Yong is "I love computers and robots! I really want to
make these kinds of things when I graduate." [5.10]. On a forum belonging
to xkcd, people wrote "This is quite awesome though" and "We need to get
thousands of these to work. Bring on the singularity!" [5.11].
The work has also raised discussion amongst legal practitioners about
patents. This is demonstrated by a letter to Science in 2009 by two patent
attorneys and a technical advisor, which they state was directly inspired
by the Robot Scientist work [5.2]. They said "As two patent attorneys and
a technical adviser at a long-established Philadelphia intellectual
property law firm, we read R. D. King et al.'s Report about robotic
inventors ("The automation of science," 3 April, p. 85) with interest. We
wonder whether the products invented by robots will ultimately become free
to the public without the possibility for patent protection." The legal
issue raised by the Robot Scientist regards whether discoveries made by
robot can be patented and if so, by whom, or would it be necessarily
patent-free and available to the public. This is an issue that could
potentially be worth billions and must now be resolved. Their letter
discusses current law in the US and Europe and the existing protection
that it might provide. Bloggers also picked up this point [5.3].
The research has also had impact in the lab automation industry. Caliper
Life Sciences, an international lab automation company with a UK office,
who won the tender to produce the robot hardware, have used the Robot
Scientist as a leading example of what can be done with automation [5.13].
The senior applications specialist for Caliper Life Sciences told us that
the company could not have imagined a better marketing campaign for the
future of lab automation, and as a result, sold us the equipment at a
heavy discount, undercutting the opposition tenders to the point of making
a loss. The Sparkes et al (2010) paper in the Journal of the Association
of Laboratory Automation, which described the automation and included a
member of Caliper Life Sciences as a co-author, appeared in the January
issue of this journal, which was given out to more than 4000 delegates of
the LabAutomation conference at Palm Springs, California. This conference
is predominantly the leading trade fair, with industry-related technical
talks in parallel. Again, Caliper Life Sciences were extremely pleased at
Sources to corroborate the impact
[5.1] TIME magazine's 4th most significant discovery of 2009:
[5.2] The issues of patents is discussed in: Robot Inventors: Patently
Impossible? Stevenson, et al. Science 22 May 2009: 1014
[5.3] The issue of patents is also discussed in blog articles such as
[5.4] BBC article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7979113.stm
[5.5] NewScientist article: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16890-robot-scientist-makes-discoveries-without-human-help.html
[5.6] Reuters: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/04/02/us-science-robots-idUKTRE53167K20090402
[5.7] NYTimes: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/07/science/07robot.html
[5.8] CNET: http://news.cnet.com/robo-scientist-makes-gene-discovery-on-its-own/
[5.9] Wired http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/04/robotscientist/
[5.10] Ed Yong blog http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2009/04/02/enter-adam-the-robot-scientist
[5.11] XKCD http://forums.xkcd.com/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=37381
[5.12] The Robot Scientist has its own Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_Scientist.
[5.13] Press release from Caliper Life Sciences (please contact Mike
Benway of Caliper Life Sciences for Caliper's opinion) http://www.caliperls.com/about/news-media-center/press-releases/press-release-20100121.htm