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These Robots Are Learning to Conduct Their Own Science Experiments

Carnegie Mellon professors plan to gradually outsource their chemical work to AI.
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Photo illustration: 731: Photographer: Getty Images

Inside a lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a robot arm lifts a bottle filled with chemical reagents and carries it over a bank of test tubes, where it dispenses a precise number of drops into each one. The arm swivels, replaces the bottle, swivels again, and picks up another container. Gracelessly, tirelessly, the machine thrums on, carrying out test after test. The experiments are part of an ongoing project to determine the ideal chemical makeup for high-capacity electric car batteries. Soon, machines won’t just run the experiments—they’ll devise them, too.

Over the next few months, an artificial intelligence algorithm will gradually take over the planning of experiments based on the battery test runs. Once fully functioning, this robot graduate student will decide how to modify the concentrations of the ingredients it’s testing. “It’s automating not only the manual part of doing the experiment but also the planning part,” says Brian Storey, the Toyota Research Institute scientist leading the project.