Scientists can only do so much to discover new chemical reactions on their own. Short of happy accidents, it can take years to find new drugs that might save lives. They might have a better way at the University of Glasgow, though: let robots do the hard work. A research team at the school has developed a "robot chemist" (below) that uses machine learning to accelerate discoveries of chemical reactions and molecules. The bot uses machine learning to predict the outcomes of chemical reactions based on what it gleans from direct experience with just a fraction of those interactions. In a test with 1,000 possible reactions from 18 chemicals, the machine only needed to explore 100 of them to predict study-worthy reactions in the entire lot with about 80 percent accuracy.
The University said it found four reactions just through this test, and one reaction was in the top one percent of unique responses.
That may not sound like a great success rate, and it will ideally get better. However, it's easy to see the robot dramatically speeding up the discovery process by letting scientists focus on the handful of reactions that are most likely to pan out. That could accelerate the development of new treatments, new battery formulas and extra-strong materials. And it wouldn't necessarily cost jobs -- rather, it could help chemists focus on the trickier aspects of research instead of plowing through mundane tests.