• An intelligent robot that works independently 21.5 hours a day is helping scientists at the University of Liverpool with their research.
  • Using AI, a flexible arm and a customised gripper, it could speed up scientific discovery and give researchers more time to think creatively.
  • The robot has the potential to tackle problems that are currently too time-consuming for humans to explore.

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have a new lab assistant with a very strong work ethic: a robot chemist that conducts experiments by itself.

The 1.75-metre-tall intelligent robot moves around the laboratory, avoiding human co-workers and obstacles while performing a wide range of different tasks independently.

It can even decide for itself which tests to do next based on previous results.

And it could make scientific discoveries “a thousand times faster”.

The robot scientist works 21.5 hours a day, seven days a week.
The robot scientist works 21.5 hours a day, seven days a week.
Image: University of Liverpool

A super-powered colleague

The super-power lab assistant’s developers at UK’s University of Liverpool say their creation can work for 21.5 hours a day, seven days a week (stopping only to recharge its battery).

In a trial, reported in the journal Nature, the robo-scientist performed 688 experiments over eight days, working for 172 out of 192 hours.

It carried out tasks including weighing out solids, dispensing liquids, removing air from vessels, running the catalytic reaction, and quantifying the reaction products.

But far from stealing jobs, the intention is for the robot to assist scientists in their research by taking on time-consuming tasks so they can focus on innovation.

In fact, by working around the clock, the robot could speed up scientific discovery by tackling large and complex problems that are currently too time-consuming for humans to explore.

“Our strategy here was to automate the researcher, rather than the instruments,” said Professor Andrew Cooper from the university’s Department of Chemistry and Materials Innovation Factory, who led the project.

“This creates a level of flexibility that will change both the way we work and the problems we can tackle. This is not just another machine in the lab: it’s a new superpowered team member, and it frees up time for the human researchers to think creatively.”

PhD student Benjamin Burger, who built and programmed the robot, said the biggest challenge was to make the system robust.

“To work autonomously over multiple days, making thousands of delicate manipulations, the failure rate for each task needs to be very low. But once this is done, the robot makes far fewer mistakes than a human operator.”

The robot reportedly carried out experiments in the department’s lab during lockdown. "It can work autonomously, so I can run experiments from home,” Burger told BBC News.

Socially distanced science

In a time of lockdowns and social distancing, technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence can help scientists to continue their experiments.

In fact, the robo-scientist may one day be working in a lab conducting COVID-19 studies.

"We've had a lot of interest [in the robot] from labs that are doing COVID research," Professor Cooper told BBC News.

"COVID, climate change – there are lots of problems that really need international co-operation. So our vision is we might have robots like this all across the world connected by a centralised brain which can be anywhere. We haven't done that yet – this is the first example – but that's absolutely what we'd like to do."