At high-end labs in the US and UK, anybody, anywhere, can conduct experiments by remote control cheaply and efficiently. Is the rise of the robot researcher now inevitable?
It’s 1am on the west coast of America, but the Emerald Cloud Lab, just south of San Francisco, is still busy. Here, more than 100 items of high-end bioscience equipment whirr away on workbenches largely unmanned, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, performing experiments for researchers from around the world. I’m “visiting” via the camera on a chest-high telepresence robot, being driven round the 1,400 sq metre (15,000 sq ft) lab by Emerald’s CEO, Brian Frezza, who is also sitting at home. There are no actual scientists anywhere, just a few staff in blue coats quietly following instructions from screens on their trolleys, ensuring the instruments are loaded with reagents and samples.
Cloud labs mean anybody, anywhere can conduct experiments by remote control, using nothing more than their web browser. Experiments are programmed through a subscription-based online interface – software then coordinates robots and automated scientific instruments to perform the experiment and process the data. Friday night is Emerald’s busiest time of the week, as scientists schedule experiments to run while they relax with their families over the weekend.