SERVO 05/06.2018 53
For a lot of people, the term “Twitter bot” carries some negative connotations. However, an innovative research
project coming out of the U.K.’s University of Glasgow is
doing its part to change that by using algorithmic online
communications not to tweet out controversial messages,
but to carry out some cutting-edge chemistry.
Developed by chemistry professor Lee Cronin and his
team, the #Real TimeChem project uses a pair of robots to
perform chemical reactions in the lab, executing simple
experiments involving mixing liquids and then recording the
results. The Twitter part relates to the fact that the two
robots aren’t physically in the same lab but are in different
locations, and are communicating with one another via
Given simple chemical experiments (for example, finding
a particular color liquid out of 117 possible combinations),
the robots share their findings with one another using the
microblogging service. By performing experiments in this
collaborative way, they were able to halve the time it took to
answer specific questions because they were able to divide
up the work between them.
Right now, this is a proof of concept in many ways, but
Cronin told Digital Trends recently that it could be an exciting
first step in a new method of doing chemistry.
The idea of robots carrying out chemical experiments is
not entirely new, but connecting them together like this is.
Cronin also stated that the concept is scalable beyond
just two robots, so it would be possible to conceivably have
hundreds of robots around the world working together and
sharing their results.
“You could imagine that chemists could access the
platform and send a message saying, ‘I’ve got a big problem
I’m trying to solve. Can other people help me?’” Cronin
explained. He speculated that different laboratories could
then help out by making different molecules and reporting
back to one another.
“It allows you to delocalize, decentralize, and parallelize
the making of molecules, to make it much faster,” he
commented. “It’s infinitely scalable. If you’ve got one robot
doing 100 experiments in an hour, two robots could do 200
experiments; three could do 300 experiments, and so on.
You’d have linear scaling at least.”
It’s almost enough to make you love Twitter bots!
can also accommodate more ambitious requests such
as manufacturing larger replicas or even putting a
model of the owners in with their dog. You can think
of the results as a 21st century spin on taxidermy, only
without the whole “stuffing an animal” thing.
“I’ve been working for 35 years to come up with
this one really cool idea,” Burke continued. “In the
back of my mind, I was always looking for something
fun and innovative. Now, without any anticipation of it,
I’ve come up with something that’s pretty freaking
The business launched this year, and Burke said it’s
doing well so far. His one regret (and a problem he’s
currently working on) is that it requires people to
physically visit his studio with their dogs so that they
can be properly scanned in the right setting. That
means that unless you’re happy to hop on an airplane,
the service is only really available to those who live
within striking distance of Alberta. Burke explained that, at
present, he’s exploring opportunities to connect with other
venues with 3D scanning capabilities around the world,
thereby opening pet scanning to whoever wants it.
One thing for certain, he says, is that 3D scanning and
printing is going to be big. It’s just a matter of coming up
with an innovative timely way of taking advantage of it. “If you
look at where this technology is going, it’s amazing,” Burke
said. “The announcements companies like Intel made at this
year’s CES — it’s just mind blowing what’s coming.”
What are his own plans for the future?
“We’re thinking of getting into cats,” he commented.
“There’s a big demand for cat-scanning right now, but we’re
trying to figure out how to do it. It’s harder to get a cat to
pose how you want it to. I need to work out the variables
for pricing depending on whether it’s a cat sitting down,
laying down, sitting on a bed, or on a cat tree. It’s
But, then again, the best ideas usually are.