So much happened in the world of science this week. The United Kingdom got a new Science Minister, a rare blood group that could solve some of the tough cases of mother-fetus blood incompatibility was discovered, and the Swedish Academy named the 2022 Nobel Prize winners. However, what stood out the most, is learning of a technology that enables scientists and researchers to perform experiments remotely. Without any confinements to a lab bench or hands stuffed in plastic gloves, they can now keep experiments running from the comfort of their homes through what is known as cloud labs.
Cloud labs function effectively with the aid of bots, mostly referred to as robot researchers. Not only are these robot researchers ridding scientists of physical stress, but they are cost-effective and their precision makes experiments more efficient. In countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom, cloud labs are already functional. Researchers are now able to carry out experiments, 24 hours, 7 days a week without suffering burnout or missing out on social life.
One may wonder whether research robots do not use any human assistance— if they are capable of performing all experimental procedures including taking out mailed-in samples. Well, although there are no actual researchers, the robots have attendants who following the instruction of scientists are constantly refilling reagents and making sure all that is needed is available. These attendants are not scientists or researchers themselves but their tasks are routine and easy, as they always have the instruction and supervision of the researchers remotely carrying out the experiments.
The best thing about cloud labs is the fact that they can allow researchers from anywhere in the world to perform experiments without having to travel to countries where highly equipped labs and research facilities are available. This might be even more beneficial to African science researchers who are unable to afford well-equipped laboratories. Some of them expressly state that poor funding, ill-equipped facilities, and outdated equipment are the reasons why they have not come up with groundbreaking, Nobel Prize-deserving discoveries. Looks like there is some truth to this.
According to World University News, “Low spending on scientific research was pervasive in Africa, as all countries on the continent were among the 80% of countries worldwide that invested less than 1% of GDP in scientific research.” With cloud labs, African scientists might be able to cross the funding hurdles and go on to do the continent proud just by using a web browser and internet connection. Who knows, indigenous malaria vaccines and other pressing health emergencies might just be addressed using cloud labs. I look forward to these with high optimism.
Throwing more light on how cloud labs work, Tom Ireland reports that “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.” The freedom to automate recurring processes or schedule experiments during holidays or weekends is just amazing. According to Tom, the use of remote research which was once termed the ‘future of science’ is now staring right back at us. What commendable progress science continues to make!
Aside from the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of cloud labs, they are also faster and give researchers the leeway to concurrently carry out multiple experiments. This means that several years-long research can be carried out in weeks or months. With just a single annual subscription that is meager compared to the cost of high-tech lab equipment, a science researcher can work 10 times faster if she or he is very experienced. We have artificial intelligence to thank for these.
Although some scientists worry about the infiltration of bioterrorists and other never-do-wells into cloud labs and the attendant risk that it might translate to for the world, I believe that this is a bold step in the right direction.
Ehi-kowoicho Ogwiji is a storyteller and natural scientist who is given to advocacy for a science-literate Africa. Ehi-kowoicho aspires to be a renowned science communicator and STEM thought leader in Africa and beyond. She writes from Abuja, Nigeria. Connect with her on social media @ogwijiehi or email her at [email protected]