'Eureka machine' puts scientists in the shade by working out laws of nature
The machine, which took only a few hours to come up with Newton's laws of motion, marks a turning point in the way science is done
Scientists have created a "Eureka machine" that can work out the laws of nature by observing the world around it – a development that could dramatically speed up the discovery of new scientific truths.
The machine took only hours to come up with the basic laws of motion, a task that occupied Sir Isaac Newton for years after he was inspired by an apple falling from a tree.
Scientists at Cornell University in New York have already pointed the machine at baffling problems in biology and plan to use it to tackle questions in cosmology and social behaviour.
The work marks a turning point in the way science is done. Eureka moments, which supposedly began in Archimedes' bath more than 2,000 years ago, might soon be happening not in the minds of geniuses, but through the warm hum of electronic circuitry.
"We've reached a point in science where there's a lot of data to deal with. It's not Newton looking at an apple, or Galileo looking at heavenly bodies any more, it's more complex than that," said Hod Lipson, the computer engineer who led the project.
"This takes the grunt out of science by sifting through data and looking for the laws that govern how something behaves."
Details of the machine are described in the US journal Science. The study appears alongside a report from scientists at the universities of Aberystwyth and Cambridge describing the first discovery of new scientific knowledge by a laboratory robot.
The robot, called Adam, devised and performed experiments to investigate the genetics of bakers' yeast. When scientists did their own experiments, they came to the same conclusions. Ross's team is already working on a second robot called Eve.
Together, the papers raise the question of how the role of scientists will change over the coming decades. For now, scientists believe the new technology will work alongside them rather than relegate them to technicians who tap in data and perform maintenance tasks, but leave the real thinking to the machines.
The Cornell machine uses a computer program that can search through huge amounts of data and look for underlying patterns. For example, a falling apple will abide by Newton's second law, which is often stated as F=ma, where F is the force acting on an object, m is its mass, and a is its acceleration. When fed information on the mass of the apple and its velocity as it falls, the machine would be able to work out the equation.
Lipson tested the machine by giving it information from basic lab experiments, such as swinging pendulums and tiny cars that moved up and down tracks on a cushion of air. After crunching through the data, the machine pinged and displayed several laws of motion and conservation of momentum.
The system runs its own checks to decide whether the laws it has found are likely to be interesting. In the pendulum test, for example, the tip of the pendulum is always the same distance from the pivot, but this does not shed any light on the underlying physics.
After proving that the machine worked, Lipson's team set it to work on the complex problem of metabolism in biological cells. The computer produced some equations, which the scientists are still trying to make sense of.
"It's like going to an oracle and asking what's going on. You are given an equation, but you need to work out what it means before you can understand what's really going on," said Lipson.
The team say they also plan to look at problems in cosmology and even social behaviour, which could reveal the underlying laws at play when people form social networks on the internet.
"The real test now is whether it can discover new laws of nature and I believe it will. There's no way forward in a lot of sciences without tools like this," Lipson said.