Glas­gow’s Lee Cronin: the sci­en­tist who built a ro­bot that uses AI to find new mol­e­cules

Lee Cronin is the Regius chair of chem­istry at the Uni­ver­sity of Glas­gow, where he leads a team of more than 50 re­searchers. Ear­lier this year he won a 2018 Royal So­ci­ety of Chem­istry in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary prize for his ground­break­ing work ex­plor­ing com­plex c

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

Where and when were you born?

Ip­swich, 1 June 1973.

How has this shaped who you are?

The schools I went to had a big im­pact – es­pe­cially sec­ondary school, which was nor­mal and slightly un­able to han­dle me.

What kind of un­der­grad­u­ate were you?

Loud, cu­ri­ous and crit­i­cal.

What was your most mem­o­rable mo­ment at uni­ver­sity?

Mak­ing my first dis­cov­ery dur­ing an un­der­grad­u­ate sum­mer re­search project. That first dis­cov­ery is still not pub­lished but it has some­thing to do with non-equi­lib­rium (clock) chem­istry driv­ing the as­sem­bly of com­plex struc­tures. One day I will re­peat it.

What are you work­ing on right now?

Lots of things across four ar­eas: ar­ti­fi­cial life, dig­i­tal chem­istry, us­ing chem­i­cal sys­tems to process in­for­ma­tion, and the devel­op­ment of chem­i­cal com­put­ers. Some­thing we are work­ing on now is re­al­is­ing that we can use chem­i­cal re­ac­tions to do com­pu­ta­tions.

Have you had a ‘eu­reka’ mo­ment?

Many such mo­ments. An ex­cit­ing one was dis­cov­er­ing that I could pro­gramme all chem­i­cal syn­the­sis.

Why should we care about your work?

Be­cause I might find out why life started, if aliens ex­ist, how we can dis­cover more drugs, and how we might digi­tise chem­i­cal syn­the­sis, mak­ing it eas­ier and safer to make per­sonal medicine pos­si­ble.

What is the big­gest mis­con­cep­tion about your field of study?

That chem­istry is bor­ing.

Why should we be us­ing ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in the first place to make chem­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies?

Hu­man be­ings make great ex­plor­ers but are frag­ile and ex­pen­sive to send out of the grav­ity well of Earth. Elon Musk’s stated aim to get to Mars with hu­mans is sim­ply un­eco­nomic, and not fea­si­ble on any timescale I will live to see. So my so­lu­tion is to de­velop a ro­bot that has been trained with a new type of AI to ex­plore Mars, and ul­ti­mately ex­ploit its re­sources. The ben­e­fits are get­ting there faster and at a lower cost, with less worry about safety, and also be­ing able to roam Mars re­motely.

Is it re­ally worth our time and money plan­ning for life on Mars?

I don’t think we should send hu­mans to Mars, but we should de­velop “con­scious” ro­bots that use chem­i­cal brains to ex­plore Mars. We need con­scious ro­bots to make de­ci­sions, in­vent around un­seen prob­lems, and be adap­tive. To­day’s AI is not re­ally AI – it is a glo­ri­fied search en­gine with some game-play­ing skills.

Are you able to ex­plain in layper­son’s terms what a chem­i­cal brain would en­tail?

Yes – jelly plus con­duct­ing poly­mer plus elec­trodes con­nected to a dig­i­tal pro­gram­mer.

Are ro­bots go­ing to steal our jobs?

No.

What ad­vice would you give to your younger self?

Grow your hair longer.

What has changed the most in higher ed­u­ca­tion in the past five to 10 years?

The ob­ses­sion with met­rics, key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors and other non­sense. Uni­ver­sity is about crit­i­cal think­ing, not teach­ing.

What is the best thing about your job?

The stu­dents and smart peo­ple you in­ter­act with.

And the worst?

The over-au­dit, but I’m lucky that the Uni­ver­sity of Glas­gow is open minded and sup­port­ive.

If you were a prospec­tive uni­ver­sity stu­dent now fac­ing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or go straight into work?

No. I’d be an en­tre­pre­neur, drop out, and make enough money to fund my stud­ies.

What ad­vice do you give to your stu­dents?

Don’t worry about the exam or writ­ing the pa­per – en­joy be­ing con­fused and be­ing crit­i­cal.

If you were the uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter for a day, what pol­icy would you im­me­di­ately in­tro­duce to the sec­tor?

Re­move the teach­ing ex­cel­lence frame­work, the knowl­edge ex­change frame­work, the re­search ex­cel­lence frame­work and any other mea­sure­ment of “ex­cel­lence” that re­quires the aca­demics to make the case.

If you weren’t an aca­demic, what do you think you’d be do­ing?

I’d be a mad sci­en­tist at home in­vent­ing stuff in my shed.

To­day’s AI is not re­ally AI – it is a glo­ri­fied search en­gine with some game­play­ing skills

Tell us about some­one you’ve al­ways ad­mired.

I ad­mire ev­ery­body who fights ad­ver­sity to be cu­ri­ous and pushes on de­spite be­ing told that they are wrong.

What keeps you awake at night?

Abil­ity to plan, fund­ing-wise; Brexit; and how to ex­plain the new thing that I’ve dis­cov­ered.

What do you do for fun?

Pro­gram­ming and drink­ing red wine.

What sad­dens you?

Writ­ing doc­u­ments about doc­u­ments about doc­u­ments about doc­u­ments to get fund­ing.

Do you live by any motto or phi­los­o­phy?

Be crit­i­cal, di­rect and openly stupid.

What would you like to be re­mem­bered for?

Want­ing to un­der­stand the world. Rachael Pells

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