From IoT to AI: how digitisation keeps laboratories running during the pandemic

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@Phoebe ChubbPhoebe Chubb

Freelance writer

Take a look at the software solutions helping scientists continue research outside of the lab
Scientists are at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19. Each day researchers around the world work tirelessly to discover more about the virus in the hopes that a successful vaccine can be created. Yet, with many laboratories behind the digitisation trend, some are not as productive as they could be. With research and development now in the limelight, it is the time for laboratories to invest in digital solutions such as AI and Automation that will not only help scientists adapt to working remotely, but also improve productivity in the laboratory, and subsequently increase discovery yield. 
IoT and Automation
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of research and development to the world. It has also stimulated meaningful debate on how we can make the laboratory a more productive environment. Automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) are being viewed as the solutions to help maximise research potential, this is achieved by the technology taking on the high volume of repetitive tasks that were previously the responsibility of the scientist.  
Laboratory automation comes in a number of forms, it could be a highly efficient machine, a collaborative robot (Co-bot) or a plug'n'play type system that allows scientists to control existing machines. Given the range of automation options, scientists can choose automation solutions that will best fit their specific research requirements. 
Automation is just one aspect to consider when thinking of the digitalisation of the laboratory environment. When paired with the internet of things (IoT), a researcher is not only able to control their devices, but also monitor every aspect of an experiment from inception to conclusion. With connected receptors that monitor temperature, movement and other environmental conditions constantly, a scientist will be able to conduct an experiment without actually being present in the laboratory. This, in turn, will allow greater flexibility, as experiments will be performed at the optimal time, rather than a time that fits into a scientist's busy schedule. 
Moreover, with IoT constantly recording data on the environmental changes of the experiment, a scientist will have extra data so they can ascertain what conditions are best for the experiment. This will make the laboratory a smarter, more efficient environment. The impact these changes will have on the world of science is extensive and could not only help with the current pandemic but also place researchers in a better position to combat future pandemics and the other challenges we face in the modern age. 
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Automation is a key step towards a more productive laboratory, but it is not the only one required to achieve a truly “Smart” laboratory. In order for automation potential to be fulfilled, it should be used alongside some form of machine learning or artificial intelligence (AI). These laboratory forms of AI consist of algorithms that learn with experience, giving them the ability to perform tasks that traditionally depended on a  researcher. 
Many are apprehensive of AI and what it means for the role of the scientist, yet this tool, as a recent Wired article states, has done a “world of good” already in the race to develop a vaccine. AI, Decario and Etzioni posit, has two roles in helping scientists in the quest for the vaccine. It can suggest potential components by “understanding viral protein structures” and even helps medical researchers sift through research data for relevant applicable information at an “unprecedented pace”. AI is an incredibly valuable tool, some would say the future of research and development; as this pandemic represents one of the greatest challenges posed to modern medicine and scientific discovery, all opportunities AI represents must be maximised.
Switching from paper to digital 
Many laboratories however, are not in the position to start extravagant spending investing in these disruptive technologies, particularly academic research laboratories. Scientists have faced hard decisions concerning the continuation of their research with some having to transition to working remotely, a hard thing to do when your laboratory uses paper as it’s main method of recording research. Even without the current pandemic, this method is outdated and does not maximise the benefits of today’s technology. Not only is this impractical as it requires a scientist to be on-site to access research, but it is also both error-ridden and time-consuming as it could take hours to find a specific experiment previously conducted, and often hand-notes can be incomplete and unreadable. 
Laboratories are increasingly swapping paper for digital, using an electronic lab notebook (ELN), a software that eliminates the need for manual transcription and offers advanced search capabilities that can streamline the way research is conducted. Some even provide inventory systems that can be easily integrated with the digital notes, this technology will help scientists overcome logistic barriers in the laboratory, progressing research and development and facilitating remote research work. For laboratories that can’t upgrade to a smart system yet, the ELN is a way to still maximise the opportunities the digital world creates.
Conclusions
In this rapidly evolving situation, all laboratories, regardless of whether they are academia or industry, need to adapt to ensure that research can continue. COVID-19 has not only exposed to the world the importance of scientific research, but also the role of digitisation in furthering science. With an increase in financial support, research laboratories can implement digital technologies that can drastically improve productivity levels in the laboratory. This will put the world in a better position to not only deal with the current pandemic but also future challenges we are likely to face in decades to come.

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