Robby, while you're up, get me a Grant

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?

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I'm a modeler, you could say, and I tend to automate things when I can. It's a lot easier to do when it's all data sets rather than having to manipulate real-world stuff.

With that said, I'm not entirely positive to automation. For instance, say that you have a tentative model, but some of the parameters are undecided - there may well not be any real-life data to set them. You want to set these parameters so that your model agrees with your set of existing experimental data. You can always automate this fitting, with anything from brute-force search to various sophisticated methods.

But in my experience, the best thing you can do is first try to fit the stuff by hand for a few days at least. Not because you're likely to stumble on to a better solution - you won't - but because the trial and error builds up a remarkably solid visceral understanding for what your model actually does, and for what these parameters actually mean. And more often than not I end up changing the model for a better one, based on my newfound understanding of the system, before I ever get to the point of optimizing the parameters of the old one.

I suspect you may be losing something similar if you are too quick in automating experimental procedures, pedestrian as they may seem, simply because you're losing an opportunity to get down and dirty with the process and gaining insights about the system along the way.

There are many weaknesses in the "human system," especially when considered in isolation. The more advanced any given exponent of this system happens to be, the more very subtle nuances of internal interactions are subject to various influences that can result in a gradual degradation of the potential for this system to function as a wholly integrated, objectively influential organism. We wear out. At all levels. And no amount of "fine tuning" can compensate for this unavoidable outcome. On the other hand, we are not only "problem solvers," we are also (and more importantly, in my mind) "problem generators." We can abstract from the ambient environment those things that are the necessary components of "questions;" and it does not matter how highly improbable the integration of these seemingly utterly disparate aspects of "reality" may be; we steadily accumulate "pieces" of the universe that we "seemingly" inhabit, and put them back together in ways that the universe finds no fault with, as we proceed. If the universe happens to object to our line of enquiry, then we have simply asked the wrong questions. So we ask another (or others); or we restructure the question that we previously asked in such a manner that it does not meet with the same objections. "Creativity (and even accidental confluence)" is simply correct alignment with what may be profitably pursued along any line of enquiry that will not be met with unassailable objections.

The most abstruse qualities of the human mind may be nothing more than chimerical, in their essential nature. "There," but in the same way that "junk" DNA is there. Vestigial elements of previous instantiations of the creature that we now find ourselves to be. Non-adaptive, or ill-adapted, but still persistently present. But there isn't any way that we can know this. We can create machines that can "smooth away" these particular "anomalies (if that is what they are)," but I think that we ought to bring to bear a very highly focused, and extremely keen vision, while we watch ourselves at work, here. We are frightfully clumsy, in many respects. And our inner nature is a seemingly incomprehensible maelstrom; a source of perpetual storms, and an unimaginable cauldron of incalculable dimension. In conventional terms, we like to believe that "reality" surrounds us, and encloses us. In fact, we are neither "on the outside, looking in," nor are we "on the inside, looking out." We are, inescapably, an irreducible, inextricable, fully integrated aspect and element of this "reality," that we conveniently think that we "inhabit." We are an inseparable, intimately intertwined "twin" of this reality, at the most profound level possible. And there is nothing the least bit mystical about the relationship. We are a product of this "place," and there is no possibility of our ever re-defining the nature of the relationship that obtains here. "We" are the Universe's delightful, artful little Doppelganger, here. The universe itself, unaided, is not capable of making manifest what lies entirely within the purview of the human mind; because alone, it possesses neither the capacity, nor the intent, that are both incontestably essential to the success of the enterprise (and there are no fucking "Gods" here, to do this shit, either). Machines are necessarily a second generation (and far less complex) aspect of this place. Less complex, but still impossible without the advent of the first generation mechanism that brought them about. We abstracted the possibility of their existence out of the raw material offered up by the various contingent expressions of the surrounding environment. The necessary nexus, here, was the integration of the mind with the raw materials. The mind, with a display of remarkable facility, directly accesses the universe in its attempt to integrate regions where there is no perceptible geographical contiguity. The enormous capacity to synthesize is one of the genuine marvels of the human mind.

When you look about you, and observe "our" world, everything that you perceive in it, that is not an inherent aspect of the natural world, is a product of the human mind made manifest. Regardless of how it may present itself. This is the human mind projected upon the environment. The human mind objectified, wandering down all of its vast avenues, in all of its various and sundry configurations, and myriad manners of expression. We can provide the machine with many attributes that closely resemble our own, on many different levels. That's just a given. What we may not be capable of providing it with is the "essential spark" that was directly imparted, and communicated to us through the proximal -- and profound -- agency of the only true, and undeniably common, parent that the human race ever realizes, here. Just tailoring the suit so that we manage to sew all of the sinews up inside the sack is the easy part. But providing what we ourselves do not have direct access to -- the essential qualities that make us what we are -- is a little more complicated than that. What flows through -- and from -- the tips of our fingers, for example, are many inexplicable things that are tightly woven into the fabric of what it means to be a human being. I suspect that this is going to be very difficult to duplicate, any time soon. All of the things that we "are" do not exist in a vacuum. To believe that we can do this may be nothing more than a very seductive and persuasive conceit, on our part. Nothing new, there, however. We imagined legions of "Gods," throughout our history, and nothing ever came of it. We remain -- still -- whatever it is that we are.