Let Robots Do Your Lab Work

Dina Genkina: Hi. I’m Dina Genkina for IEEE Spectrum‘s Fixing the Future. Before we start, I want to tell you that you can get the latest coverage from some of Spectrum’s most important beeps, including AI, Change, and Robotics, by signing up for one of our free newsletters. Just go to spectrum.ieee.org\newsletters to subscribe. Today, a guest is Dr. Benji Maruyama, a Principal Materials Research Engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL. Dr. Maruyama is a materials scientist, and his research focuses on carbon nanotubes and making research go faster. But he’s also a man with a dream, a dream of a world where science isn’t something done by a select few locked away in an ivory tower, but something most people can participate in. He hopes to start what he calls the billion scientist movement by building AI-enabled research robots that are accessible to all. Benji, thank you for coming on the show.

Benji Maruyama: Thanks, Dina. Great to be with you. I appreciate the invitation.

Genkina: Yeah. So let’s set the scene a little bit for our listeners. So you advocate for this billion scientist movement. If everything works amazingly, what would this look like? Paint us a picture of how AI will help us get there.

Maruyama: Right, great. Thanks. Yeah. So one of the things as you set the scene there is right now, to be a scientist, most people need to have access to a big lab with very expensive equipment. So I think top universities, government labs, industry folks, lots of equipment. It’s like a million dollars, right, to get one of them. And frankly, just not that many of us have access to those kinds of instruments. But at the same time, there’s probably a lot of us who want to do science, right? And so how do we make it so that anyone who wants to do science can try, can have access to instruments so that they can contribute to it. So that’s the basics behind citizen science or democratization of science so that everyone can do it. And one way to think of it is what happened with 3D printing. It used to be that in order to make something, you had to have access to a machine shop or maybe get fancy tools and dyes that could cost tens of thousands of dollars a pop. Or if you wanted to do electronics, you had to have access to very expensive equipment or services. But when 3D printers came along and became very inexpensive, all of a sudden now, anyone with access to a 3D printer, so maybe in a school or a library or a makerspace could print something out. And it could be something fun, like a game piece, but it could also be something that got you to an invention, something that was maybe useful to the community, was either a prototype or an actual working device.

And so really, 3D printing democratized manufacturing, right? It made it so that many more of us could do things that before only a select few could. And so that’s where we’re trying to go with science now, is that instead of only those of us who have access to big labs, we’re building research robots. And when I say we, we’re doing it, but now there are a lot of others who are doing it as well, and I’ll get into that. But the example that we have is that we took a 3D printer that you can buy off the internet for less than $300. Plus a couple of extra parts, a webcam, a Raspberry Pi board, and a tripod really, so only four components. You can get them all for $300. Load them with open-source software that was developed by AFIT, the Air Force Institute of Technology. So Burt Peterson and Greg Captain [inaudible]. We worked together to build this fully autonomous 3D printing robot that taught itself how to print to better than manufacturer’s specifications. So that was a really fun advance for us, and now we’re trying to take that same idea and broaden it. So I’ll turn it back over to you.

Genkina: Yeah, okay. So maybe let’s talk a little bit about this automated research robot that you’ve made. So right now, it works with a 3D printer, but is the big picture that one day it’s going to give people access to that million dollar lab? How would that look like?

Maruyama: Right, so there are different models out there. One, we just did a workshop at the University of— sorry, North Carolina State University about that very problem, right? So there’s two models. One is to get low-cost scientific tools like the 3D printer. There’s a couple of different chemistry robots, one out of University of Maryland and NIST, one out of University of Washington that are in the sort of 300 to 1,000 dollars range that makes it accessible. The other part is kind of the user facility model. So in the US, the Department of Energy National Labs have many user facilities where you can apply to get time on very expensive instruments. Now we’re talking tens of millions. For example, Brookhaven has a synchrotron light source where you can sign up and it doesn’t cost you any money to use the facility. And you can get days on that facility. And so that’s already there, but now the advances are that by using this, autonomy, autonomous closed loop experimentation, that the work that you do will be much faster and much more productive. So, for example, on ARES, our Autonomous Research System at AFRL, we actually were able to do experiments so fast that a professor who came into my lab said, it just took me aside and said, “Hey, Benji, in a week’s worth of time, I did a dissertation’s worth of research.” So maybe five years worth of research in a week. So imagine if you keep doing that week after week after week, how fast research goes. So it’s very exciting.

Genkina: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about how that works. So what’s this system that has sped up five years of research into a week and made graduate students obsolete? Not yet, not yet. How does that work? Is that the 3D printer system or is that a—

Maruyama: So we started with our system to grow carbon nanotubes. And I’ll say, actually, when we first thought about it, your comment about graduate students being absolute— obsolete, sorry, is interesting and important because, when we first built our system that worked it 100 times faster than normal, I thought that might be the case. We called it sort of graduate student out of the loop. But when I started talking with people who specialize in autonomy, it’s actually the opposite, right? It’s actually empowering graduate students to go faster and also to do the work that they want to do, right? And so just to digress a little bit, if you think about farmers before the Industrial Revolution, what were they doing? They were plowing fields with oxen and beasts of burden and hand plows. And it was hard work. And now, of course, you wouldn’t ask a farmer today to give up their tractor or their combine harvester, right? They would say, of course not. So very soon, we expect it to be the same for researchers, that if you asked a graduate student to give up their autonomous research robot five years from now, they’ll say, “Are you crazy? This is how I get my work done.”

But for our original ARES system, it worked on the synthesis of carbon nanotubes. So that meant that what we’re doing is trying to take this system that’s been pretty well studied, but we haven’t figured out how to make it at scale. So at hundreds of millions of tons per year, sort of like polyethylene production. And part of that is because it’s slow, right? One experiment takes a day, but also because there are just so many different ways to do a reaction, so many different combinations of temperature and pressure and a dozen different gases and half the periodic table as far as the catalyst. It’s just too much to just brute force your way through. So even though we went from experiments where we could do 100 experiments a day instead of one experiment a day, just that combinatorial space was vastly overwhelmed our ability to do it, even with many research robots or many graduate students. So the idea of having artificial intelligence algorithms that drive the research is key. And so that ability to do an experiment, see what happened, and then analyze it, iterate, and constantly be able to choose the optimal next best experiment to do is where ARES really shines. And so that’s what we did. ARES taught itself how to grow carbon nanotubes at controlled rates. And we were the first ones to do that for material science in our 2016 publication.

Genkina: That’s very exciting. So maybe we can peer under the hood a little bit of this AI model. How does the magic work? How does it pick the next best point to take and why it’s better than you could do as a graduate student or researcher?

Maruyama: Yeah, and so I think it’s interesting, right? In science, a lot of times we’re taught to hold everything constant, change one variable at a time, search over that entire space, see what happened, and then go back and try something else, right? So we reduce it to one variable at a time. It’s a reductionist approach. And that’s worked really well, but a lot of the problems that we want to go after are simply too complex for that reductionist approach. And so the benefit of being able to use artificial intelligence is that high dimensionality is no problem, right? Tens of dimensions search over very complex high-dimensional parameter space, which is overwhelming to humans, right? Is just basically bread and butter for AI. The other part to it is the iterative part. The beauty of doing autonomous experimentation is that you’re constantly iterating. You’re constantly learning over what just happened. You might also say, well, not only do I know what happened experimentally, but I have other sources of prior knowledge, right? So for example, ideal gas law says that this should happen, right? Or Gibbs phase rule might say, this can happen or this can’t happen. So you can use that prior knowledge to say, “Okay, I’m not going to do those experiments because that’s not going to work. I’m going to try here because this has the best chance of working.”

And within that, there are many different machine learning or artificial intelligence algorithms. Bayesian optimization is a popular one to help you choose what experiment is best. There’s also new AI that people are trying to develop to get better search.

Genkina: Cool. And so the software part of this autonomous robot is available for anyone to download, which is also really exciting. So what would someone need to do to be able to use that? Do they need to get a 3D printer and a Raspberry Pi and set it up? And what would they be able to do with it? Can they just build carbon nanotubes or can they do more stuff?

Maruyama: Right. So what we did, we built ARES OS, which is our open source software, and we’ll make sure to get you the GitHub link so that anyone can download it. And the idea behind ARES OS is that it provides a software framework for anyone to build their own autonomous research robot. And so the 3D printing example will be out there soon. But it’s the starting point. Of course, if you want to build your own new kind of robot, you still have to do the software development, for example, to link the ARES framework, the core, if you will, to your particular hardware, maybe your particular camera or 3D printer, or pipetting robot, or spectrometer, whatever that is. We have examples out there and we’re hoping to get to a point where it becomes much more user-friendly. So having direct Python connects so that you don’t— currently it’s programmed in C#. But to make it more accessible, we’d like it to be set up so that if you can do Python, you can probably have good success in building your own research robot.

Genkina: Cool. And you’re also working on a educational version of this, I understand. So what’s the status of that and what’s different about that version?

Maruyama: Yeah, right. So the educational version is going to be– its sort of composition of a combination of hardware and software. So what we’re starting with is a low-cost 3D printer. And we’re collaborating now with the University at Buffalo, Materials Design Innovation Department. And we’re hoping to build up a robot based on a 3D printer. And we’ll see how it goes. It’s still evolving. But for example, it could be based on this very inexpensive $200 3D printer. It’s an Ender 3D printer. There’s another printer out there that’s based on University of Washington’s Jubilee printer. And that’s a very exciting development as well. So professors Lilo Pozzo and Nadya Peek at the University of Washington built this Jubilee robot with that idea of accessibility in mind. And so combining our ARES OS software with their Jubilee robot hardware is something that I’m very excited about and hope to be able to move forward on.

Genkina: What’s this Jubilee 3D printer? How is it different from a regular 3D printer?

Maruyama: It’s very open source. Not all 3D printers are open source and it’s based on a gantry system with interchangeable heads. So for example, you can get not just a 3D printing head, but other heads that might do things like do indentation, see how stiff something is, or maybe put a camera on there that can move around. And so it’s the flexibility of being able to pick different heads dynamically that I think makes it super useful. For the software, right, we have to have a good, accessible, user-friendly graphical user interface, a GUI. That takes time and effort, so we want to work on that. But again, that’s just the hardware software. Really to make ARES a good educational platform, we need to make it so that a teacher who’s interested can have the lowest activation barrier possible, right? We want she or he to be able to pull a lesson plan off of the internet, have supporting YouTube videos, and actually have the material that is a fully developed curriculum that’s mapped against state standards.

So that, right now, if you’re a teacher who— let’s face it, teachers are already overwhelmed with all that they have to do, putting something like this into their curriculum can be a lot of work, especially if you have to think about, well, I’m going to take all this time, but I also have to meet all of my teaching standards, all the state curriculum standards. And so if we build that out so that it’s a matter of just looking at the curriculum and just checking off the boxes of what state standards it maps to, then that makes it that much easier for the teacher to teach.

Genkina: Great. And what do you think is the timeline? Do you expect to be able to do this sometime in the coming year?

Maruyama: That’s right. These things always take longer than hoped for than expected, but we’re hoping to do it within this calendar year and very excited to get it going. And I would say for your listeners, if you’re interested in working together, please let me know. We’re very excited about trying to involve as many people as we can.

Genkina: Great. Okay, so you have the educational version, and you have the more research geared version, and you’re working on making this educational version more accessible. Is there something with the research version that you’re working on next, how you’re hoping to upgrade it, or is there something you’re using it for right now that you’re excited about?

There’s a number of things that we are very excited about the possibility of carbon nanotubes being produced at very large scale. So right now, people may remember carbon nanotubes as that great material that sort of never made it and was very overhyped. But there’s a core group of us who are still working on it because of the important promise of that material. So it’s material that is super strong, stiff, lightweight, electrically conductive. Much better than silicon as a digital electronics compute material. All of those great things, except we’re not making it at large enough scale. It’s actually used pretty significantly in lithium-ion batteries. It’s an important application. But other than that, it’s sort of like where’s my flying car? It’s never panned out. But there’s, as I said, a group of us who are working to really produce carbon nanotubes at much larger scale. So large scale for nanotubes now is sort of in the kilogram or ton scale. But what we need to get to is hundreds of millions of tons per year production rates. And why is that? Well, there’s a great effort that came out of ARPA-E. So the Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency and the E is for Energy in that case.

So they funded a collaboration between Shell Oil and Rice University to pyrolyze methane, so natural gas into hydrogen for the hydrogen economy. So now that’s a clean burning fuel plus carbon. And instead of burning the carbon to CO2, which is what we now do, right? We just take natural gas and feed it through a turbine and generate electric power instead of— and that, by the way, generates so much CO2 that it’s causing global climate change. So if we can do that pyrolysis at scale, at hundreds of millions of tons per year, it’s literally a save the world proposition, meaning that we can avoid so much CO2 emissions that we can reduce global CO2 emissions by 20 to 40 percent. And that is the save the world proposition. It’s a huge undertaking, right? That’s a big problem to tackle, starting with the science. We still don’t have the science to efficiently and effectively make carbon nanotubes at that scale. And then, of course, we have to take the material and turn it into useful products. So the batteries is the first example, but thinking about replacing copper for electrical wire, replacing steel for structural materials, aluminum, all those kinds of applications. But we can’t do it. We can’t even get to that kind of development because we haven’t been able to make the carbon nanotubes at sufficient scale.

So I would say that’s something that I’m working on now that I’m very excited about and trying to get there, but it’s going to take some good developments in our research robots and some very smart people to get us there.

Genkina: Yeah, it seems so counterintuitive that making everything out of carbon is good for lowering carbon emissions, but I guess that’s the break.

Maruyama: Yeah, it is interesting, right? So people talk about carbon emissions, but really, the molecule that’s causing global warming is carbon dioxide, CO2, which you get from burning carbon. And so if you take that methane and parallelize it to carbon nanotubes, that carbon is now sequestered, right? It’s not going off as CO2. It’s staying in solid state. And not only is it just not going up into the atmosphere, but now we’re using it to replace steel, for example, which, by the way, steel, aluminum, copper production, all of those things emit lots of CO2 in their production, right? They’re energy intensive as a material production. So it’s kind of ironic.

Genkina: Okay, and are there any other research robots that you’re excited about that you think are also contributing to this democratization of science process?

Maruyama: Yeah, so we talked about Jubilee, the NIST robot, which is from Professor Ichiro Takeuchi at Maryland and Gilad Kusne at NIST, National Institute of Standards and Technology. Theirs is fun too. It’s LEGO as. So it’s actually based on a LEGO robotics platform. So it’s an actual chemistry robot built out of Legos. So I think that’s fun as well. And you can imagine, just like we have LEGO robot competitions, we can have autonomous research robot competitions where we try and do research through these robots or competitions where everybody sort of starts with the same robot, just like with LEGO robotics. So that’s fun as well. But I would say there’s a growing number of people doing these kinds of, first of all, low-cost science, accessible science, but in particular low-cost autonomous experimentation.

Genkina: So how far are we from a world where a high school student has an idea and they can just go and carry it out on some autonomous research system at some high-end lab?

Maruyama: That’s a really good question. I hope that it’s going to be in 5 to 10 years, that it becomes reasonably commonplace. But it’s going to take still some significant investment to get this going. And so we’ll see how that goes. But I don’t think there are any scientific impediments to getting this done. There is a significant amount of engineering to be done. And sometimes we hear, oh, it’s just engineering. The engineering is a significant problem. And it’s work to get some of these things accessible, low cost. But there are lots of great efforts. There are people who have used CDs, compact discs to make spectrometers out of. There are lots of good examples of citizen science out there. But it’s, I think, at this point, going to take investment in software, in hardware to make it accessible, and then importantly, getting students really up to speed on what AI is and how it works and how it can help them. And so I think it’s actually really important. So again, that’s the democratization of science is if we can make it available to everyone and accessible, then that helps people, everyone contribute to science. And I do believe that there are important contributions to be made by ordinary citizens, by people who aren’t you know PhDs working in a lab.

And I think there’s a lot of science out there to be done. If you ask working scientists, almost no one has run out of ideas or things they want to work on. There’s many more scientific problems to work on than we have the time where people are funding to work on. And so if we make science cheaper to do, then all of a sudden, more people can do science. And so those questions start to be resolved. And so I think that’s super important. And now we have, instead of, just those of us who work in big labs, you have millions, tens of millions, up to a billion people, that’s the billion scientist idea, who are contributing to the scientific community. And that, to me, is so powerful that many more of us can contribute than just the few of us who do it right now.

Genkina: Okay, that’s a great place to end on, I think. So, today we spoke to Dr. Benji Maruyama, a material scientist at AFRL, about his efforts to democratize scientific discovery through automated research robots. For IEEE Spectrum, I’m Dina Genkina, and I hope you’ll join us next time on Fixing the Future.

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