Carnegie Mellon University’s highly anticipated Cloud Lab will finally open its doors for student and faculty use in a soft opening in early July, and Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science Rebecca Doerge is on a mission to make one thing clear.
The Cloud Lab isn’t a science project—it’s the future of science as we know it.
“I’m not interested in building just a cloud lab at CMU,” says Doerge. “Yes, we’re the first academic institution to do it, but I really want to change how science is done in the United States and worldwide, eventually.”
With access to a stable Wi-Fi connection, students and faculty around the world have access to over 200 different lab instruments at their fingertips. After learning the lab’s protocols, they send their AI-assisted experiment parameters to the facility’s trained technicians—and robots. Following the coded commands, the lab assistants will execute experiments on their behalf. Although the lab is located only a stone’s throw away from campus, no one from CMU will ever have to step foot in the lab.
“We are automating science. We don’t want faculty in the facility because they don’t need to be,” Doerge says. “They can code their experiment anywhere in the world—in an airplane, in an office, wherever. Submit the code, the science is done.”
As the first academic institution to embrace the cloud lab, it only makes sense that the only private research facility to harbor such technology helps them acclimate. Staff from Emerald Cloud Lab, founded by two CMU alumni, will help run the facility for the foreseeable future until faculty get their feet wet.
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Only the best-resourced institutions in the world can attempt to render the experiments of the field’s most gifted scientists. Unfortunately, faculty and students around the world have been limited by their area’s capital- until now.
“I have friends and colleagues from under-resourced places that will never have the instruments and the environment they need to do the science they’re capable of. This takes it all away,” Doerge said. “With an internet connection and access to a cloud lab, you can do the science you’re capable of.”
It also further evens the playing field for individuals suffering from disabilities.
Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, Andrew De Young successfully graduated from CMU with his Ph.D. in January 2021 while restricted to a wheelchair and hooked up to a breathing tube. The school provided Andrew with assistants who could help him type, and they acted as his surrogate in the lab. Doerge introduced De Young to the cloud lab system, and De Young quickly learned that instead of relying on others to do his work by hand, he could do it himself by code.
“I can’t believe CMU is going to have one of these,” he said, according to Doerge.
The only real limit to what a scientist can do in a cloud lab is the extent of their own ingenuity.
Expedient, cost-effective testing
A hallmark of the scientific method is that experiments and conclusions must be reproducible by other scientists in their respective labs. Consequently, scientists spend a lot of time—and money—trying to replicate each other’s work.
Working from one centralized lab, however, dramatically streamlines this process. Instead of having to reproduce the work of a colleague, someone can review the code that went into their experiment and simply modify it to render the next experiment. Not only does this push science forward faster, but it also saves scientists from committing errors during the replication process which further slows the process down.
Dmytro Kolodieznyi, a Ukrainian student with whom Doerge acquainted the cloud lab, was able to replicate his thesis research out of Emerald Cloud Lab’s facility in San Francisco in only a few weeks when it had originally taken him years to put it together.
Additionally, because all of CMU’s experiments will be run from one centralized source, one particular instrument can fill the needs of a hundred students, maximizing the potential of the expensive equipment. Costs associated with machinery breaking down from shutting down and ramping back up are now a thing of the past. It cost CMU $26 million to acquire the lab’s instruments, but their continuous operation and maintenance ensure they’ll get bang for their buck.
Pushing science into the Now
EPAM Systems, a product engineering company, helps its clients in education technology and beyond leverage cloud-based technology to expand its capabilities without sacrificing significant resources to infrastructure. He believes we must adopt emerging technologies to survive in a new digital landscape.
“Our society is fundamentally tied to technology and technology advancements. As educators, as facilitators of education and as a society, we need to embrace that approach and push students to learn technology—embrace it, learn it and figure out how to leverage it, because that’s where innovation comes from,” says Brian Imholte, Head of Education & Learning Services at EPAM Systems.
Doerge shares a similar sentiment, believing that the scientific method is in the prime spot to be renovated for a new age. “Science has been done the same way for hundreds of years,” she says. “We have a cellphone that’s not even 20 years old that’s basically a hand-held computer. It’s ridiculous to be looking at science the same way.”