Mixing chemicals to see which ones would react and which ones wouldn’t was one of the most entertaining parts of high school chemistry class. Some of them would bubble, some of them would smoke or change color, and some would even explode or catch fire. Some wouldn’t do anything at all, which was a little bit disappointing. Now, researchers have created a robot programmed with artificial intelligence that could potentially find every single chemical reaction that would work. How did the bot manage this, and what does it mean for the future of chemistry?
Looking for a Reaction
Human chemists can test chemicals to see how they’ll react, but manually checking every single combination would take quite a long time. To get around this, researchers use their knowledge of already-tested reactions to predict the ones that will work best. They then start with the most likely candidates.
This method can work, but it takes time, and the chemists are likely to miss some of the worthwhile reactions.
But what if, instead of manually testing reactions, we could program a robot to try all of the possible combinations and record the results? It would never get tired, it could avoid the biases of human researchers, and it’d also be much more precise in its methods than humans. Well, that’s exactly what researchers at the University of Glasgow decided to do.
The Bespoke Robot
The robot that the researchers built doesn’t look like your typical robot – you could mistake it for a fancy computer or an expensive piece of lab equipment if you didn’t know what you were looking for. This robot was custom-built to start mixing a variety of chemical reagents known as nucleophiles and electrophiles together in different amounts to try to create new products.
To get the bot started in its experiments, the researchers loaded it up with some information about already-known chemical reactions. By marrying together artificial intelligence and robotics, scientists used this technology to begin predicting outcomes as a human scientist would. The result? It predicted the outcomes with more than 80 percent accuracy.
After uploading more data from which the robot could learn and having the bot predict more outcomes, the scientists hooked it up to the reaction-testing equipment. Using this setup, it could run six experiments at a time without one of them interfering with the others. This ability enables it to run tests on chemicals with unknown reaction much more quickly than a human could.
The Future of Chemistry
Chemists don’t have to worry about robots taking their jobs just yet. Findings from robots such as this would often serve as a starting point from which people could conduct more involved research.
Plus, there are still plenty of experiments that robots won’t be able to handle for various reasons. What this new chemistry robot shows is that we can use robots and artificial intelligence to quickly complete repetitive tasks that would take human chemists’ much longer to complete.
This ability could potentially take our knowledge of organic chemistry much further than we could manage on our own. Instead of spending time on multiple experiments that might not yield anything useful, those experiments could be delegated to a robot, allowing the human chemists to focus on the tests that are more likely to produce results.
This robot is the first of its kind, but if it continues to be successful in its experiments, it might not be long before we start to see other similar devices popping up in labs around the world. We might not get the answers to all of the world’s big scientific mysteries in our lifetime, but with tools like this robot at our disposal, maybe we’ll find some of them sooner than we previously thought. Combining artificial intelligence and robotics is arguably one of the most significant advances in organic chemistry this decade, and we can’t wait to see what researchers do next with this capability.
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