More and more jobs are getting subjected to the threat of automation, but this is not inherently a bad thing. As it turns out, a currently operating robot scientist and her very smart equivalents could really help the poor people in the world to receive affordable medicine.
Eve is a robotic scientist developed by researchers from the Universities of Aberystwyth and Cambridge. Her predecessor, which was naturally named Adam, became the first machine to independently discover new scientific knowledge when operations started in 2009. As Business Insider writes, robot scientists have some very valuable traits which make them fit for working in the medical business. Robots like Eve can automatically develop and test hypotheses to explain observations. As they effortlessly go on, the science robots can get help from laboratory robotics in conducting experiments, analyze and interpret the results, incrementally improve the hypotheses and start all over again in a new cycle. This means that hypothesis-led research is becoming automated. As developer and professor Ross King, from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester, told Cambridge News:
“Every industry now benefits from automation and science is no exception. Bringing in machine learning to make this process intelligent, rather than just a ‘brute force’ approach, could greatly speed up scientific progress and potentially reap huge rewards.”
Automated research could be beneficial for a number of reasons and Eve has, the professor implies, been assigned an important mission to speed up the discovery process of drugs and make it more economical. The thing is that some diseases are more lucrative to cure than others. For instance, remedies for the tropical diseases that are affecting many poor people might not yield enough economic returns for the possible developers. Even if human scientists know what is causing a disease and in theory could attack the cause; it is still oftentimes too costly and slow for the pharmaceutical industry. This means that the robot scientist’s job might be very important for the less fortunate in the world.
Engadget writes that Eve is capable of scanning over 10,000 compounds (i.e. medical substances consisting of two or more elements) a day, whereas humans obviously wouldn’t be able to process as many in the same timeframe. However, Kurzweil AI makes a valid point of that such types of mass screenings are still wasteful of resources if every compound of the library would be tested. This means that it is not only a question of speed. Fortunately, Eve has a much more intelligent approach and selects a random subset of compounds that are tested in a first round. The ones that pass this initial test are then tested again to reduce the probability of false positives, and then machine learning and statistics us used by the robot to predict what new compounds would work best for the task at hand.
Robot scientists such as Eve might improve the lives of millions of people, and a big breakthrough has already been announced. It turns out that Eve has showed that a compound that has previously been investigated as an anti-cancer drug inhibits a key molecule known as DHFR in the malaria parasite, according to Engineering.com. Drugs that inhibit this molecule are currently routinely used to protect against malaria, and are given to over a million children; however, the emergence of strains of parasites resistant to existing drugs means that the search for new drugs is becoming increasingly more urgent. To convey the possible magnitude of Eve’s achievement, we let Professor King from the interview with Cambridge News help us out with one last and important statement regarding the success:
“Despite extensive efforts, no one has been able to find a new anti-malarial that targets DHFR and is able to pass clinical trials. Eve’s discovery could be even more significant than just demonstrating a new approach to drug discovery”