Robots are learning to do the jobs of human factory workers, bus drivers, burger flippers, butlers, and healthcare workers, among many others – and now, they may be coming for scientists as well. Engineers at the University of Liverpool have developed a robot scientist that can autonomously perform experiments, analyze results and decide what to do next. And it’s already making new discoveries.
Weighing around 400 kg (882 lb) and standing 1.75 m (5.7 ft) tall, this robot looks much like the mechanical arms you see on many a factory line. But this one has had a few modifications to make it more suited to science, including specialized grippers that let it gently pick up glass vials and push buttons.
The robot rolls around the lab thanks to a lidar system for detection, much like those used in autonomous cars, and is programmed with coordinates for several work stations, where specific tasks are carried out. And once it gets to a work station, it positions itself more precisely over the equipment using touch feedback, by tapping on carefully placed rubber squares..
But like any scientist, the most impressive thing about this robot is its brain. The machine has been programmed with a detailed algorithm that lets it explore some 98 million possible experiments to run, choosing which one to do at any given time based on the results of previous tests. While other robots have been put to work in science labs before, they're usually only performing one task, aren't mobile and aren't making decisions about what to do.