Aberystwyth University
Computer scientist Ross King stands
in front of ADAM.

Robot Can Hypothesize, Solve Problems

April 03, 2009 05:15 PM
by Cara McDonough
ADAM is the first robot that can analyze data and make scientific discoveries. Could robots one day work alongside humans in the laboratory?

A Robot Who Performs Human Functions

According to the scientists who created ADAM, the robot is different than normal robots because it can try to solve problems on its own, like humans.

National Geographic reports that Ross King, of Aberystwyth University in Wales, U.K., and his colleagues, created ADAM “by combining the most advanced robotics hardware with artificial intelligence software.”

To specifically test the robot’s abilities, scientists gave ADAM the complex task of discovering more about the genome of baker’s yeast. After completing a “crash course in biology,” the robot formed and tested 20 different hypotheses, and eventually was able to identify the genes that code for enzymes in yeast metabolism.

"This is one of the first systems to get [artificial intelligence] to try and control laboratory automation," King told LiveScience.

According to the LiveScience story, which includes a video of ADAM in action, the robot cost about $1 million to develop so far. Although spending the same amount on lab technicians would probably create a more reliable system, ADAM can work on a thousand experiments a day and keep track of all the results better than humans can.
Robots could prove useful in solving complex scientific problems in the future, King believes. But they probably won’t actually replace humans, he said, because while robots are better at conducting experiments on a large scale, "humans are better at seeing the big picture and planning the overall experiment."

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Related Topic: Robots in medicine and the military

Robots are also making advances in hospitals. In February, researchers from Duke University announced that they were fine-tuning a robot that can perform a breast biopsy with little help from a human.

Engineers created a basic tabletop robot with “eyes” that used a 3-D ultrasound technology from Duke. An artificial intelligence program comprising the robot’s “brain” processed the 3-D information and gave the robot tasks to perform. Researchers said they could picture patients saving money by coming in for routine procedures performed by robots in a few years.

Robotic exoskeletons have also proved immeasurably helpful for those who are paralyzed. Last year, Argo Medical Technologies, a high-tech Israeli company led by engineer Amit Goffer, created an exoskeleton suit to help people who have not been able to move their legs for years to now walk.

The invention, called ReWalk, can help “paraplegics—people paralyzed below the waist—to stand, walk and climb stairs,” Reuters reported. The user, with the support of crutches, chooses a desired action on remote control, such as stand. He then leans forward, causing the body sensors to move the robotic legs.

The suit was still in clinical trials last year and researchers estimated it would be released in 2010. 

The military has also increased its use of robots in recent years. In an August 2008 ScienceDaily story, Doug Few and Bill Smart of Washington University in St. Louis said the military’s goal is to have about 30 percent of the Army made up of robotic forces by 2020.

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