That damned elusive spark
One of our sister titles,The Engineer, ran an interesting story this week. Two PhD students, Chris Lovell and Gareth Jones, have won an award for producing an artificial intelligence that is apparently able to guide scientific experimentation in the laboratory.
The two researchers are based at the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) and received the Carl Smith Award for best student paper at the 13th international conference on Discovery Science.
According to the duo’s supervisor, Dr Klaus-Peter Zauner of the Science and Engineering of Natural Systems Group at ECS: ’Experimentation is expensive. Scientists always want to learn as much as they can from the smallest number of experiments possible. The new techniques we have developed try to address this problem.’ He adds: ’Biological experimentation can be error prone… Measurements taken may not always be representative of what actually happens. Our system tries to detect erroneous data, so it can ignore it.’
The artificial experimenter has been used to characterise the response from a biological system. These experiments are currently being performed manually in the laboratory, but the next stage for the researchers is to join the softwarewith an automated platform that can perform microscale experiments, to allow for fully autonomous experimentation.
I’m going to resist the temptation to go down a well-worn path whereby I remember all the nasty things that happened at the end of 2001: a space odyssey and argue that this is the end for humanity, the machines are taking over and so on - I think we can be a bit bigger than that.
The problem with these types of arguments is that they are based on a quaint 19th century opposition between creative humans versus blind machines. This is a flawed argument because it overloads the term ’human creativity’.
In our society, painters, writers and film-makers, for example, are assumed to rely on almost supernatural bouts of inspiration and creativity. But actually the ’creative’ community relies on inherited languages, techniques and methods that can twist even the most original ideas into another shape entirely. Scientists too, don’t begin their work in a vacuum but from a set of beliefs, assumptions and practices that are largely inherited. At the most basic level, all thisactivity takes place in and through language, an inherited structure riddled with bias and ideologies.
So, whatever this AI might be replacing, it won’t be replacing that damned elusive spark of human genius that we spend most of our lives pining for.