An unsettling report in NATURE this week describes efforts to develop a robotic chemist. While simple robots are widely used in chemistry labs these days, the ‘robo-chemist’ goes far beyond that. The idea is to develop a machine that will be able to analyze the vast array of information on molecular structures and chemical reactions that is available in public data-bases and use that information to design synthetic routes to new chemicals. The robo-chemist would then follow its own plan and actually synthesize the new entity. Thus massive data crunching would replace the creative intuition that experienced chemists currently use to design and synthesize new chemicals.
The chemical and pharmaceutical industries would love this of course. It would allow them to lay off thousands of experienced chemists and increase their profit margins. Not so great for the chemists though!
The robo-chemist is really a wake up call for educated people who may think that their occupation is safe from the inroads of artificial intelligence and robotics. If Ph.D. chemists can be replaced who is next?
The explosive penetration of computer technology into all areas of the economy comes at a time when rapid increases in total population and in longevity are occurring in the USA. How will our society provide continuous employment for all these long-lived healthy people while machines do more and more of the work?