Monday, September 26, 2011

It Happened to Me

Farhad Manjoo has a column discussing the white-collar job functions that may soon be automated.  I worked in a molecular biology lab from 2004-2008 and during that time, saw a lot of my duties partially automated.

Extracting DNA and RNA from samples that I had to process is something best done by a robot.  It will treat each sample exactly the same, which is almost impossible for a human to do.  These robots had some pretty clever mechanisms (sometimes mashing up different methods, like PCR and ELISA), and took some work that had the potential to be dangerous out of human hands.

In the short run, these automation systems have the potential to drive costs up, since you're using some patented materials. Still, as it is, using kits with pre-mixed chemical solutions takes advantage of the economy of scale for quality assurance, where you can farm that work out to the manufacturer of the kit.  It often works out to be more cost-efficient and reliable than paying an undergrad to do that work in your lab.

Any of this automation requires a person's judgment call during part of the process, especially with things like medicine.  The auto-radiologist may be able to detect subtler patterns than the human one, but I'd still want my MRI results double-checked.  

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