How do scientific voice assistants fit into the Lab of the Future?
There are many scientific laboratories that have a Lab of the Future initiative. These programs are often created by the company with hopes to improve the scientists’ productivity and increase profit. Meanwhile, scientists are looking for ways to simplify their processes allowing them to focus on science and reduce the overhead of documentation. This may lead to different expectations as to what a "Lab of the Future" means.
Years ago, a laboratory of the future could have been as simple as a transition from paper logbooks to electronic systems such as a LIMS, ELN, or LES. Soon there was the addition of mobile devices in the lab, first laptops, then tablets or smartphones. Today there are more technological advances that can be considered in this vision. Let's talk about a few concepts
One view of the lab of the future is a digital lab. The digital lab is the next evolution of the electronic lab. Laboratory instruments are connected with IoT tools, and data is collected seamlessly. Software is collaborative and cloud-based, allowing different geographical sites to access information. Data is meta-tagged and stored en masse and processed with machine learning applications. With all of the data available, real-time dashboards can be provided to improve business decisions and reduce costly errors.
Mixed reality is the offering of a system, usually a headset or enhanced glasses, that provides a visual interface to the user without the need for a computer or tablet. There are two main types of mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual reality.
Virtual reality immerses the user in a virtual environment providing great capabilities for training or digital simulations. A new technician could learn to perform an analysis without using up costly consumables and without interfering with instrument cycle times to maintain the lab's current productivity.
Augmented reality provides the user with a heads-up display allowing a data layer present over the real-world lab. A scientist could simply look at the laboratory and see information such as incubator timers, reagent expiration dates, or instrument maintenance logs. This could also be used to provide process information upon request.
While voice technology is not new, user adoption and interest has exploded in the past 5 years. In 2018, about 40 million Americans reported owning a smart speaker. Consumers have been turning their homes into smart homes with a growing number of IoT enabled products and using voice as the interface.
Scientists are looking to do the same for laboratories. In a lab, a person is usually wearing gloves and this makes interacting with touch screen mobile devices difficult. Even traditional keyboards could raise a concern about contamination. Alternatively, there may be times the scientist needs to be focused on the task at hand, and doesn't have an opportunity to document the experiment. Recording the details later, may lead to misremembering or loss of data. This is where voice can play an important role.
There are many types of voice interactions that can occur in a lab. There are atomic actions such as "Order 10 liters of acetone." There could be voice transcriptions where the scientist takes a voice note and this is transcribed and recorded into an electronic lab notebook. The scientist could use voice commands to collect data from laboratory equipment such as a balance, simply by saying "Weigh." Also, voice could be used to create a guided assistant that speaks the next step in a protocol or procedure to the user. With a voice assistant, this may even reduce two-person operations to a single user task, in turn increasing a laboratory’s throughput without adding headcount.
This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list of all the technologies that could be in a future scientific laboratory. There are many more than mentioned here such as wearables with biometric sensors or touchless controllers. The question I ask you is, what do you see as your view of the "Lab of the Future?”