Can a robot be called a scientist?
Congratulations to Aaliyah , one of our Year 12s. She entered the 2020 Immerse Education Essay Competition late last year.
They received thousands of entries from students attending leading schools all over the world for the 2020 competition. Judges commented on the extremely high quality of essays that they received this year across all categories. They commented that it was clear that the candidates had invested significant effort in researching and writing their essays.
We are therefore delighted that the judges selected Aaliyah’s essay to receive a partial scholarship of 25% to study Computer Science at the Immerse Summer Academic Programme to be held at Cambridge University in July-August 2020. Our congratulations to Aaliyah on being recognised as one of the highest calibre of entries this year.
To begin, what is a scientist?
It is defined as “A person who is studying one or more of the natural or physical sciences” and conducts research in the hopes of furthering knowledge in their chosen field. Therefore purely factually speaking, it can be said that a robot is capable of being a scientist. Take Adam the Robot Scientist as an example.
He is a prototype robot working at Aberystwyth University who automates the scientific process, formulating hypotheses with the information received and testing them. He makes use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) to complete this process and in 2009 had his first scientific breakthrough. Adam managed to solve a genetic yeast problem that had bested human scientists for decades given the exact same data that they had available through intelligent trial and error in which he learnt from his failed experiments before testing newer hypotheses.
Another example would be Adam’s ‘cousin’ known as Eve. She operates at Cambridge University and with a focus on medicinal drugs, but has yet to make a new discovery. Though it is said to be capable of improving the search and could yield beneficial results.
There are others similar to them, such as Echo the robotic arm, the Tow Tank working for MIT and many more, but Adam and Eve in particular are quite extraordinary and should qualify as scientists. However, Adam has been labelled as a “high tech minion” by some and they are seen as tools rather than colleagues. This suggests that perhaps they should not be characterized as ‘scientists’. They are more than capable of doing the work and are far more precise and efficient, but thus far they are simply doing what they are instructed to do.
They lack the instinctive self-preservation and intuition humans have which is often the driving force behind the greatest discoveries and could be the motivation for those yet to come. This desire to make the world a better place we cannot yet instill into machines. They have limited freedom and no choice in what they study nor a drive to better humanity as, for the moment, they are only sophisticated pieces of machinery despite their increasingly complex designs and software. They are completely logical and strive only to complete the assigned task whereas the average scientist is working to further understand the subtleties and complexities of the universe and attempting to improve the lives of all mankind; whether that be better treatment of diseases or developing more effective and affordable prosthetic limbs, their motivations are often aligned with the public’s needs.
Moreover, until AI and robotics advances to the point where machines are completely self sufficient and able to conduct their own scientific research and engage in experiments outside of what is already being researched, it should not be believed that they can truly be scientists. However, they are still useful instruments for researchers and have been of immense help in the science field overall, but they have not yet earned the esteemed title of scientists.
University of Cambridge, Robot Scientist becomes first machine to discover new scientific knowledge, University of Cambridge, (02/04/09)
- Peniel M. Dimbera, Adam the robot scientist makes its first discovery, Singularity Hub, (16/03/10)
- John Bohannon, A new breed of scientists with brain of silicon, Science Magazine (05/07/17)
- Vineeth Venugopal, Robots are doing Science, Towards Data Science, (13/07/19)
- University of Cambridge, Artificially Intelligent Robot Scientist ‘Eve’ could boost search for new drugs, University of Cambridge, (04/02/15)
- Devin Coldewey, This robot scientist has conducted 100,000 experiments in a year, TechCrunch, (27/11/19)