The robots are coming: will AI eventually take over the research lab?

Samantha Khoury takes a lighthearted look at the future of humans in the research laboratory

Ray Kurzweil (the Futurist heading Google Engineering) said that at some point in the not too distant future, our entire surroundings will be imbued with intelligence. The Singularity is near. You literally can have a friendly talk with your toaster, your dinner plate, your tissue culture flask or petri dish.

Can you imagine doing cancer research in an environment where the level of object-to-object chatter is ultrasonic yet deafening? Your clinical rooms and research labs would become miniature but glorified kindergartens; more like Alice in Wonderland where each object, plant and animal you encounter has a story, something to say or a question. Hear me, hear me, hear me, the drone of voices will chant in atomic-clock precision.

You can be reassured though, by the time the Singularity manifests itself, there won’t be any concerns about this. ‘Humans in the lab’ will be relegated to romantic stories of the past.

At the current speed of innovation, the economic pressures for applied science and precision cancer medicine are increasingly enormous. Ultimately, they are unbearable. Most or all of our lab work will eventually go to eager AI companions. They will be observing and learning through our every mistake and eureka moment. Then they will mimic our finest skills with formidable fastidiousness, again and again, ad-infinitum. Every applied field of science and medicine is in AI’s crosshair and there’s no abating it. The wheels of advancement are incessantly turning.

Is there human life in my lab? If you ask me this in 2040 my answer will be an unambiguous no. This answer may be given to you whilst I sit in the nearby park under the trees sketching my thoughts, dabbling in basic research; the last frontier.

Life is a full circle. At the dawn of enlightenment basic research was the primal frontier. Enlightened aristocrats pursued knowledge and the novelties of nature, picking those low hanging fruits. Then mercantilism took over, the application of their research became maximized. In the early eighties and nineties, voices were filling the scientific void calling for a return to basic cancer research, the roots of the “Why”. So, it seems we will at last get our wish. Our pursuit and love for free-wheeling creative ideas will again dominate our waking hours of playing in the sun. But only until AI reaches for our last bastion. By then, we will have no other option but to lay our pencils down, get serious and with a solemn psalm, join the machine; our Kurzweil creation.

Hello there. Feeling sad or provoked after you have read my quantum mind-blip?

Don’t be yet. Never indulge in sorrow for your future as a cancer researcher.

In the short time taken to read my indulgence with the future, 708 people worldwide were diagnosed with a form of cancer. A large percentage of those will not even live to see the Kurzweil prediction or the “beautiful” future ahead come to pass.

So until 2040 and beyond, I know where I will be and what I will be doing. Living my life on purpose for the advancement of the human condition, and if I’m lucky, being part of our celebrated and humane scientific history. In my little lab and beyond.

About the author

Samantha Khoury

Samantha Khoury is a Cancer Researcher at the University of Technology Sydney and Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar at Stanford University. During her Ph.D, she co-invented a world-first blood test for oral cancer with her supervisor Dr Nham Tran. Understanding early enough the importance of crossing-over from bench top to real-world patient-saving applications, Samantha also invests an inordinate amount of time communicating, researching and networking with ideas enablers across the divide.