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Imagining the Digital Research Lab of the Future

Christopher Waller

VP, Chief Scientist, EPAM United States
  • Life Sciences

Going Electronic vs. Going Digital

Most people confuse going electronic with going digital. The migration from paper-based to computer-based laboratory notebooks is a great example of going electronic – data once trapped in books, not easily accessible or searchable, are now captured, archived and made discoverable almost instantly through search engines. This shift in tactics is obviously valuable, but it’s not quite digital.

So, what kind of shift does constitute digital? According to Gartner, digitalization is “the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities.” In the above example, there is no change in business model or new revenue generated. Going well beyond a simple electronic solution for a formerly analog process, a digital laboratory is one where all processes are governed by the data being generated and outcomes are optimized through simulations.

With this distinction in mind, how do we transition to the lab of the future and discard the lab of the present or worse, the past? How do we move our research operations to an analytics-first culture driven by data, modeling and simulation and away from the experiment-first culture where, as Frank Brown once said, “a week in the lab can save you an hour on the keyboard”?

What the Kitchen of the Future Can Teach Us about the Lab of the Future

Behold the kitchen of the future! Seriously, there is now a commercial offering a robot with fully articulated fingers on amazingly dexterous robotic hands that can, using robotic instructions (menus) purchased from a cloud-based provider of such things, prepare you a gourmet dinner in the style of Jacques Pepin right in your home kitchen. Beyond being completely mind-blowing, this represents a new market with economics based on shared and/or commercial recipes (and robotic chefs!).

In terms of operations, the analogies between the kitchen of the future and a next-gen research laboratory are fairly obvious. We know that fewer people will be in the lab, and those who are will possess a mixture of life sciences and analytics skills. That’s why, in my vision of the lab of the future, data collection enabled by plug-and-play devices within the Internet of Lab Things (IoLT), clouds, and real-time analytics drive semi-autonomous laboratory processes – and yes, there will probably be amazingly dexterous robot hands involved, too.

Whatever the case, the traditional laboratory software vendors should take notice now. 

When Star Trek Becomes Reality

Will we ever achieve this Star Trek-inspired vision? We have the technology, and we know for the most part which ‘things’ will make up the IoLT in the lab of the future. We just have to connect the pieces and cultivate a culture that embraces the digital vision. (And if you’re reading this and you’re still in college working on that biology or chemistry degree, take a class on data science. You’ll thank me later.)

For more on my vision of the lab of the future, be sure to follow the next three installments which will explore in greater detail topics related to cybersecurity, data and analytics, and the cloud as a catalyst for change.

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