Working in a commercial environmental testing laboratory I’m familiar with instruments and robots that take some of the drudgery out of our routine by performing those mindless repetitive tasks such as transferring samples from one place to another or doing dilutions. Quite simple functions that even a business graduate could do with a little effort. This frees us to do the more complicated and interesting work that requires the flexible human mind and body to perform. Advances in software and robotics are however encroaching on arenas that we once considered to be strictly the domain of humans. More and more we are finding that the capabilities of the average human are different only in degree from what we find in animals or can program into our machines, not a difference in kind.

We have computers that write music, robots that paint and now they are working out physical laws and making discoveries. Yep, two papers published recently detail how we are progressing in programing the scientific method into non-human intelligence. The first concerns a computer program that rediscovered laws of motion from data sets of simple movements such as pendulums and an evolutionary algorithm that slowly built up equations to accurately describe the data. The program even built upon prior solutions to attain explanations for ever more complex situations, thus the program was able to deduce concepts such as conservation of motion and momentum. Anyone else put in mind of the computer Deep Thought who from first principles deduced the existence of rice pudding and income tax? No? Just me then.

Next is a robot that in some ways is even more impressive because it has actually discovered things we didn’t already know. Named “Adam” this robot consists of a collection of lab equipment that can form hypotheses about yeast genes and enzymes, design experiments to test the hypotheses, grow and analyze colonies of yeast and then form conclusions. In this way Adam managed to discover three yeast genes that encoded for a novel enzyme, this was confirmed by manual experiments as well. Currently the robot is described as working at the same level as a graduate student allowing the humans to concentrate on higher level tasks. How long before we can build a computer that surpasses us?