Cloud labs and remote research aren’t the future of science – they’re here

Article by Tom Ireland: “Cloud labs mean anybody, anywhere can conduct experiments by remote control, using nothing more than their web browser. Experiments are programmed through a subscription-based online interface – software then coordinates robots and automated scientific instruments to perform the experiment and process the data. Friday night is Emerald’s busiest time of the week, as scientists schedule experiments to run while they relax with their families over the weekend.

There are still some things robots can’t do, for example lifting giant carboys (containers for liquids) or unwrapping samples sent by mail, and there are a few instruments that just can’t be automated. Hence the people in blue coats, who look a little like pickers in an Amazon warehouse. It turns out that they are, in fact, mostly former Amazon employees.

Plugging an experiment into a browser forces researchers to translate the exact details of every step into unambiguous code

Emerald originally employed scientists and lab technicians to help the facility run smoothly, but they were creatively stifled with so little to do. Poaching Amazon employees has turned out to be an improvement. “We pay them twice what they were getting at Amazon to do something way more fulfilling than stuffing toilet paper into boxes,” says Frezza. “You’re keeping someone’s drug-discovery experiment running at full speed.”

Further south in the San Francisco Bay Area are two more cloud labs, run by the company Strateos. Racks of gleaming life science instruments – incubators, mixers, mass spectrometers, PCR machines – sit humming inside large Perspex boxes known as workcells. The setup is arguably even more futuristic than at Emerald. Here, reagents and samples whizz to the correct workcell on hi-tech magnetic conveyor belts and are gently loaded into place by dextrous robot arms. Researchers’ experiments are “delocalised”, as Strateos’s executive director of operations, Marc Siladi, puts it…(More)”.