It is 2:30 in the morning at Steve Metzner's lab at Monsanto Co. in St. Louis, and lab workers are busy preparing samples for an experiment to be run that day. These workers aren't diligent technicians, however--they're robots, and they're freeing the laboratory's human workers to do more complicated and challenging tasks when they arrive. To the functioning of Metzner's lab, and many others around the United States, robotics has become integral. While most prevalent in labs that perform highly routinized processes--repetitive analyses associated with quality assurance, for example, or environmental testing-- robotic systems increasingly are being used for other, more complex research functions as well.

To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's description of pornography, robotics is tough to define, but people know it when they see it. As Craig Muir, research associate at Genentech Inc. in South San Francisco, Calif., says, if you put a bunch of people...

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?