Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, Scotland and his research team had created a “Chemputer”, which set out to be the “chemical Google to search for the origin of life”. Earlier on, Cronin’s lab had also developed new methods of creating drug molecules via the use of downloadable blueprints to generate organic chemicals using a modular chemical-robot system.

Technology is changing the way we view and do science in general. Many scientists are adopting new tools in their research studies like the way healthcare professionals are trying to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) into their workflow. Often, thinking of a solution to solve an existing problem, maybe the first lesson in starting a technological revolution. For Cronin, as he spoke with Nature in the last episode of a six-part podcast series about workplace technology, the eminent question who prompted him to use technology in his chemical research was “how did life start”?

It all begins with a question 

Cronin explained years ago, when he began to design a system to do chemistry robotically, he already had that life question in mind. However, it was “too huge” to be answered. After all, it took several hundreds of millions of years for lives to emerge from simple chemistry. So, his solution was to make the concept less cumbersome; to sift through all the chemicals and look for reactions that go “is this more life-like” or “is this less life-like”? 

He imagined having a Lego kit of chemical reactors which he could slot together, building a literal Large Hadron Collider, that was how the idea of Chemputer was born. He then uses real-time data analyzes to answer the question of what happened after the search has been completed. As such, detecting a loophole in practice or seeking a more effective way to work out a problem, usually, can be a motivating force to technology adoption. 

Recognizes the change 

The impact of technology on research is profound, as Cronin expressed in the same podcast. On one hand, digitization is producing more data, on the other hand, automation is omitting the needs for hands in some steps. Cronin mentioned some chemistry students may not even be trained to use hands anymore to do reactions but taught how to use robots from the very beginning. He believed the change is something one should be ready for. Because when we being to rely on technology, it may also change the way we think. 

“When you do not have to move these liquids by hands in chemical research, suddenly, you will be thinking in a completely different way. You have to integrate the idea of programming,” Cronin said. He added our education will eventually change to accommodate the shift. Students may be taught how to use robotics to control certain experiments and using programs or software to carefully execute them. This approach may improve reproducibility but it also changed our fundamental thinking of how chemistry work. 

In a way, similar concepts have been touched upon in the healthcare industry. AIMed had explored the possibilities of surgeons losing their dexterity in this digital age, a gradual shift of power from physicians to patients, and probably health may have a different meaning in the near future. Whilst most believe no human healthcare professional will be replaced since it is a human-facing job, an adequate amount of change is undeniable. 

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.