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Scholar uses robots to advance chemistry research

By Alexa D’Aiello

The College welcomed University of Toronto professor and Phi Beta Kappa scholar Alán Aspuru-Guzik on Oct. 2 to present a lecture titled “(R)evolution? The Future of Computer Simulation of Matter,” in the Education Building Room 212.

Aspuru-Guzik shared his ideas about pairing new technologies, such as robotics and augmented reality, with science to further research in various fields including organic chemistry and quantum chemistry.

Aspuru-Guzik hopes his designs will expedite the molecule synthesis process. (Meagan McDowell / Photo Editor)

Aspuru-Guzik is a faculty member in the chemistry and computer science departments at the University of Toronto. He has received several accolades including MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 list.

He provided insight into his current research and what motivates him to look for new and more practical ways for future scientists to be productive and further their understanding of their research topics. Aspuru-Guzik’s grand vision is to use robotic designs to help scientists communicate.

He hopes to design a robot or machine that will be able to be asked a question in any language regarding science and help solve a problem in the real world. He showed an example of what dialogue might look like between a person like “Jane the chemist” and “Organa” the robot. 

The chemist would ask Organa to perform a certain task, and the robot would answer accordingly and follow through with the request. His goal is to create this machine in 10 years with a value of approximately $20,000.

Aspuru-Guzik also shared pictures of a robot that specialized in martini making. The martini making robot only costs around $1,000 to create and assemble. Although this particular robot is used to make martinis, similar technology and programming can be applied to create robotics for the science labs that will help increase speed at which research can be done. Aspuru-Guzik feels the robot is a prime example of being creative on a small budget.

“Hopefully that inspires you,” he said. “You can do research in robotics with only a thousand bucks.”

With his goal for increased productivity in mind, Aspuru-Guzik argues that augmented reality would allow scientists to feel and understand chemical simulations better, and suggested that more people would be interested in science if it was just as engaging as video games.

“You would be so much more addicted to organic chemistry if it looked like Fortnite,” Aspuru-Guzik said.

Aspuru-Guzik is now working with the Mexican government on its national project for Mission Innovation, a program put out by former President Barack Obama’s administration to get multiple countries to collaborate on research and propose new ideas.

According to Aspuru-Guzik, the making of molecules is a slow process. In his proposal for the project, he included an idea for robotozing and automating molecule synthesis to speed up the process.

Maria Fairfield, a senior chemistry major, was fascinated by Aspuru-Guzik’s outlook on the future of science. 

“I think it was interesting how … everything can change and how the future can look completely different based on new technology,” Fairfield said.

Aspuru-Guzik concluded his lecture by reminding students how it is their responsibility to expand on the existing technology and combine it with innovative science.

“You are the ones that have to flip the tortilla and make this happen,” he said.


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