This is a good article at C&E News on the “lab of the future”, and I’ll go ahead and make the standard comment that this has been the lab of the future for quite a while now. The idea is to have mechanical automation and experiment-evaluating software fitting together to “close the loop” and make experimentation more of a turn-it-loose-and-watch-it-run process. It’s a worthy goal, and people have been trying for many years to realize it.
But there are a lot of ways for this vision to go off the rails. On the mechanical end, chemical experimentation is notoriously hard to automate because it can involve such a range of physical actions. Powders, liquids, gases (all of which are measured by different means), orders of addition, inert atmospheres, widely varied temperatures, stirring techniques, and a huge variety of solvents and reagents no matter what. Some of those evaporate on you if you don’t move quickly, some of them schlork up water from the air and turn from powders into sticky goo, some of them precipitate from solution and clog up your needles and transfer lines, and some of them have a tendency to burst into flame. So any attempt at wide-ranging automation is going to need some troubleshooting.
On the software end, the optimization of reaction conditions and of product activity can still devolve into a semi-science. Both of these have notorious cliffs and discontinuities that will only become apparent when you stumble over them, and these things tend to be poorly handled by computational models. Sometimes a principal-components-analysis approach like DoE can work well, but other times it struggles, and there is often no way to know which of those situations you’re getting into. But to be honest, most of us would settle for an automated “make me a whole bunch of stuff roughly like this” or “try a whole bunch of catalysts and solvents and so on around this transformation”, with human brainpower to be applied afterwards. That’s a point the article stresses:
These labs aren’t perfect yet, and much work and convincing are needed before research managers in the drug and chemical industries embrace them. Observations vary on where the bottlenecks lie in the clocklike loops—some point to the data; others, to the robots. But the innovators are unanimous regarding the importance of the third element in the loop: the human researcher.
“This idea of the clockwork laboratory is, in the long term, not the strongest approach,” Cooper says of the notion of a self-sufficient research machine. “The strongest approach is to have the clockwork laboratory with a very permeable interface so that the human knowledge can be captured as well.”
Exactly. And that’s why I don’t run around shouting for people to man the barricades because the robots are coming. I want the damn robots to hurry up and get here already! We’re a long, long way from hitting a few buttons on the screen to have the Synthotronic 5000 make us a new antibiotic or a new transparent conducting polymer. What we can use help with, and what the current systems are finally able to start to do, is to say things like “Hey, take this library of 100 amines, couple them onto this intermediate one by one, and ring this bell when you have the set of purified samples for testing” or “Hey, vary these crystallization conditions across this big matrix of temperature/time/additives and get back to me with what happens”. In short, the kinds of things that you would turn over to some idealized imaginary group of highly competent and technically adept lab assistants who work constantly and dive right into any task you give them.
There is an awful lot of this kind of work to be done across all fields of chemistry, and all of us have put in our time doing it, too. And if some of it sounds tedious, well, that’s because it darn well can be, and some tireless mechanical help would be much appreciated. I’ve written several times (links therein) about this sort of thing over the years. And yes, I realize that we already have more of that tireless mechanical help than we used to, what with autosamplers and all, but allow me to propose a corollary to Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the automation available.
I have a presentation that I give about automation and AI, and one of its main points is that it will actually give chemists more to do, not less. But that work is going to migrate to higher levels as what we call “grunt work” is redefined by machines. Trivial (but real) examples from my own career: in grad school, I cut my own fractions as I ran hand-packed silica gel chromatography columns, using everything from 1mL vials (or smaller) up to 250 mL Erlenmeyers. In fact, folks in my lab used to wire up various sized vials into little 5×5 racks that could then be rinsed and re-used, and which eliminated those nasty elbow-scythe and roll-a-strike-at-the-bowling-alley incidents on the benchtop. I had two or three of the ones made out of 20mL scintillation vials, and boy did they get some use. Making those, collecting fractions in them, and rinsing them out afterwards was considered (by both me and my boss!) a perfectly good use of my time, but now such things are automated, and thank goodness.
Even in my first job in the drug industry, the NMR machines had no autosamplers on them yet. There was a signup list by each NMR, with names and office phone numbers, and you went down there with your tube(s) when you got the call and used up your 15-minute time slot however you wished. Then you called the next person on the list – it was generally someone that I knew well, so my standard message was “Get your worthless butt down to the NMR, you lazy slug” or something like that. Overnight set of samples? Sure, if you wanted to sit there in the NMR room and run them overnight. One by one.
Eventually, much of the work we’re doing now will seem as primitive and pointless as that kind of thing, and I’m honestly OK with that. I can get all nostalgic for those days, as long as I’m not actually having to sit there packing columns, waiting to retrieve my NMR samples, and standing next to the prep HPLC to make sure that it actually works. There are better and more interesting things to do with our time!