Robot scientists and automation: is this the lab of the future?

Robot scientists and automation: is this the lab of the future?

A team of researchers recently published promising findings on ‘Eve’ – an artificially intelligent ‘robot scientist’ capable of screening potential drugs with almost no human input needed. Meanwhile, IBM’s artificially intelligent (AI) Watson system is seeing take-up among pharmaceutical companies. Is this how we can expect the lab of the future to materialize?

As technology continues evolving and the laboratory becomes more automated, these types of systems will increasingly pool knowledge and data together to discover unique links – between otherwise seemingly unconnected observations. This couldn’t be timelier, with research and development (R&D) teams under intense pressure to develop new products faster and cheaper.

This shift towards automation has been a long time coming. In the 1990s, many cited AI and total laboratory automation as the ‘next big thing’ in R&D. But while some industries are seeing complete job displacement brought about by new technologies, the pharma sector hasn’t yet seen similar levels of ‘human replacement’. Drug discovery labs, for example, will still need a human element for the foreseeable future.

The role these AI systems play lies in helping explore fresh ideas, such as a new pathway or target for a drug, and they can offer this coupled with predictive analysis to supplement the work of scientists in the lab. These predictive analyses have limitations – the volume of data and computing power required to simulate the effects of a drug on the whole body are enormous, for example. But their empirical basis means they can now get quite close to simulating ‘nature’ when the system is well defined and understood.

Perfect simulation may still be some way off, but our ability to manage and analyze more and more data has increased exponentially. When these new systems are performing any kind of analysis, they will have to feed back the derived information and integrate it with other new and potentially unrelated data. In that sense, a gradual adoption of more intelligent lab technologies will make it even more important to be able to securely manage multiple streams of data, from one central point of knowledge and IP.

Will the introduction of AI herald a new era for life sciences? Not quite – Eve is the latest evolution of this kind of technology, rather than a brand new concept. This is not a silver bullet but, as science evolves and the data availability changes around it, AI technology will play a role in the discovery and development of new drugs and disease understanding. As with all new tech and tools in sciences, it will help support the scientist – but it will not replace them.

Want to find out more about how laboratories will evolve over the coming years? Download our free whitepaper on the lab of the future here.