Science

Alán Aspuru-Guzik is reimagining the discovery of materials using AI, automation, and even quantum computing.

Orignally published on 2021-10-27 11:47:20 by www.technologyreview.com

In time, as companies develop more powerful quantum computers, the VQE could enable chemists to run strikingly accurate simulations. These models might be so precise that scientists won’t need to synthesize and test the materials at all. “If we ever reach this point,” Aspuru-Guzik says, “my work in materials science will be done.” 

When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, Aspuru-Guzik’s career was flourishing, but suddenly the prospect of remaining in the country no longer appealed to him. One week after the election, he began emailing colleagues in Australia and Canada, looking for a new job. 

The University of Toronto offered him a prestigious government-funded position meant to lure top-tier researchers to the country and a cross-appointment at the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a nonprofit corporation cofounded by machine-learning pioneer Geoffrey Hinton that is quickly making Toronto a global hub for AI. The biggest inducement, however, was a promise to build a radical new materials lab called the Matter Lab, a project Aspuru-Guzik had dreamed of for years.

“Fuck it”

“In the Matter Lab, we only attack a problem after asking three questions,” says Aspuru-Guzik. “Does it matter for the world? If not, then fuck it. Has somebody else already done it? If the answer is yes, there’s no point. And is it remotely possible?” Here, the word “remotely” is key. Aspuru-Guzik wants to tackle challenges that are within the range of feasibility, but barely so. “If a material is too easy,” he says, “let other people find it.” 

Located in a postwar brick building in downtown Toronto, the lab is unlike any other at the university. The ceiling is adorned with maroon and burgundy acoustic panels, an homage to the beloved Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Tucked away in an inconspicuous corner is a typical lab bench—a table with flasks, scales, and beakers beneath a fume hood—where graduate students can practice chemistry in much the same way their grandparents’ generation did. One gets the sense that this workstation isn’t often used.

In the center is a $1.5 million robot—a nitrogen-filled glass-and-metal enclosure housing a mechanical arm that moves back and forth along a track. The arm can select powders and liquids from an array of canisters near the sides of the enclosure and deposit the contents, with exacting accuracy, in one of a number of reactors. “The robot is like a tireless lab assistant who mixes chemicals 24/7,” says Aspuru-Guzik. It can make 40 compounds in a mere 12 hours.

Orignally published on 2021-10-27 11:47:20 by www.technologyreview.com

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