'Robot Scientist' Could Speed Up Drug Discovery

Tom Cheshire, Technology Correspondent
'Robot Scientist' Could Speed Up Drug Discovery

An artificially intelligent robot called Eve could speed up the discovery of new drugs, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Manchester.

The robot, named Eve, can screen more than 10,000 potentially disease-targeting compounds and has already discovered that an existing compound could be used to fight malaria.

Rather than attempting to screen by brute force of numbers, though, Eve uses machine learning to develop its approach and target new structures.

The "robot scientist" can develop and test hypotheses to explain its observations, run experiments using other robots in the lab and come to a conclusion.

Professor Ross King, from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester, said: "Every industry now benefits from automation and science is no exception.

"Bringing in machine learning to make this process intelligent - rather than just a 'brute force' approach - could greatly speed up scientific progress and potentially reap huge rewards."

In the study, published today in Interface, the researchers describe how Eve could have particular uses in fighting tropical diseases, where expensive drug development makes them uneconomically attractive for pharmaceutical companies.

Professor Steve Oliver from the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre, said: "Eve exploits its artificial intelligence to learn from early successes in her screens and select compounds that have a high probability of being active against the chosen drug target.

"A smart screening system, based on genetically engineered yeast, is used.

"This allows Eve to exclude compounds that are toxic to cells and select those that block the action of the parasite protein while leaving any equivalent human protein unscathed."

Scientists and researchers are beginning to make more use of artificial intelligence (AI) in their research.

This year two Stanford physicists used AI to predict dangerous solar flares. Doctors sometimes use artificial neural networks to help diagnose patients.

At the same time, notable figures, including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Nick Bostrom have warned that AI could pose an existential threat to humanity.