The Robby in the title refers to Robby the Robot in the 1956 movie, Forbidden Planet, and what follows was a tag line in an ad for Grant’s whiskey: “While you’re up, get me a Grant’s.” That’s in case you’ve forgotten or never knew.
I’m still working on the grant, doing things it feels like a robot could do. Writing pieces on the facilities, lists of Key Personnel, charts of graduate students trained, budgets, budget justifications, etc., etc. I have lots of help from great staff and colleagues, but it is the kind of necessary but tough slogging that doesn’t feel very creative. I don’t mind writing grants except for this stuff. Grant writing is a creative enterprise that makes you think through what you are doing, and in any event, if you want taxpayers to support your science, you should have to justify it. The fact that I’ve been a fairly successful grant writer probably has something to do with liking it, of course. No one likes doing something for which you get no positive feedback. But there may come a time when grants will be written by robots.
Because it seems the day has arrived when robots can do science:
Automation of human tasks is a natural goal of robotics development. We have already seen many areas where automation has become the standard. And even science has seen the advent of nearly autonomous software programs that can deduce principles of physics. As artificial intelligence continues to evolve however, we are beginning to see the introduction of robotics in many ?high-skill? fields such as research and medicine. In their report in the journal Science, Professor Ross King and his group at Aberystwyth University describe Adam as the ultimate laboratory companion. Unlike mere humans, Adam doesn?t tire or lose focus while performing repetitive tasks. But don?t mistake Adam as just a high-tech minion.
His developers introduced him to a yeast genetics mystery that had eluded discovery for quite some time. As with all living organisms, yeast have proteins called enzymes that catalyze many of the chemical reactions necessary for life to occur. Each of these enzymes is encoded in the yeast?s genome, but a few of these enzymes were difficult to link to particular genes. For decades, geneticists had toiled to figure out which genes encode a few of these ?orphan? enzymes.
Dr. King and colleagues gave Adam a database containing information on the enzymes, the chemicals and reagents to do the experiments, and access to the yeast cultures. After that, a human technician only came around to refill the necessary reagents and remove the waste products generated from the experiments (evidently, Adam is unable to perform those lowly tasks!). So what did Adam find? After multiple rounds of experimentation and analysis, Adam found exactly which yeast genes encode which ?orphan? enzymes! The human scientists then went to work to verify his findings by doing the experiments manually. Eureka! Adam had indeed solved the problem! (The Singularity Hub)
I suppose a lot of people think this should bother me. It doesn’t. We now automate many things in the laboratory that were previously done by humans hands plus trial and error combined with deduction. I’m not all hung up on having special powers, you know, the “things that make us human.” Maybe there are things like that, maybe there aren’t. But if a robot could find a cure for cancer, why would I object? Humans have plenty of things to do and while some of those things can also be done by non-humans, it doesn’t make them any less fun or less important.
And if there are things only humans can do? So what? Does that make them more important?