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Meet your new lab assistant

One software developer wants to transform Amazon’s personal assistant Alexa into a tool for scientists

by Bethany Halford
May 2, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 19

A chemist in a lab asks Alexa, "Alexa, ask Helix for the boiling point of benzene," and Alexa responds, "80.1 degrees Celsius." Another person asks, "Alexa, when will I finish my Ph.D.?"
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN

Imagine working on a multistep reaction that requires you to add reagents in a specific sequence and with precise timing. Standing at the hood, reagents measured and ready to go, you begin the carefully orchestrated procedure, when suddenly your mind draws a blank. Which reagent do you add next?

You could take off your gloves and look up the protocol in your lab notebook, but with each precious second that passes, the reaction is more likely to fail. Then you remember your lab assistant—a black cylinder sitting on a shelf across the lab. “Alexa, ask Helix for the protocol for the coupling reaction,” you say. A ring on top of the cylinder glows blue as Alexa rattles off the correct order of addition. Crisis averted.

This is just one scenario in which software developer James Rhodes imagines scientists would benefit from his voice-enabled laboratory assistant called Helix. Rhodes designed Helix as an add-on to Alexa—the personal assistant software that’s part of Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot hardware, which sell for $180 and $50, respectively. At last month’s ACS national meeting in San Francisco, Rhodes introduced chemists to Helix and its potential features.

When Amazon unveiled the Echo in 2014, techies weren’t quite sure what to make of the gadget. The technology blog Engadget noted that the Echo had standout personal assistant abilities but concluded it was “basically a speaker.” Wired magazine was more cynical: “The device is ostensibly about playing music and providing information. But ultimately, it looks like yet another gadget Amazon hopes to use as a way of driving retail purchases.”

As software developers such as Rhodes have expanded Alexa’s skill set, however, the Echo and Echo Dot have grown in popularity. Alexa can give headlines from National Public Radio and ESPN as well as recite the AccuWeather forecast. Alexa can play music from Spotify and even order from Domino’s Pizza.

And the devices seem to be catching on with consumers. An estimated 2.4 million Echo devices were sold worldwide in 2015. That number grew to nearly 7 million Echo and Echo Dot devices in 2016. And experts project that nearly 25 million voice-enabled personal home assistants will be sold this year, including a new device called Google Home.

So, if Alexa can help out at home, why not in the lab? That’s what Rhodes was thinking. Rhodes has no background in science, but his wife, DeLacy Rhodes, is a tenure-track microbiology professor at Berry College. “The whole time James has known me, I’ve been a scientist, primarily doing lots of lab work,” she says.

In January, James floated the idea of a voice-enabled lab assistant past DeLacy, and she thought it was great. “We do so much in science where our hands are really busy, so it can be really helpful to have something there that can just tell you what it is that you need to know, be able to answer questions for you, look up information, and remind you of things,” DeLacy Rhodes says.

Helix is currently at the proof-of-concept stage. It can look up data, such as boiling points and molecular weights. It can do calculations, such as how to make up solutions of a particular molarity. James Rhodes has also loaded Helix with the recipes from DeLacy’s lab, so Alexa can recite those stepwise protocols.

Teaching Alexa to speak science has been entertaining at times, the couple says. For example, James loaded in the recipe for lysogeny broth, known colloquially among microbiologists as LB broth. Alexa initially insisted on calling it “pound broth,” but a small tweak finally got Alexa to say the letters instead.

James Rhodes tells C&EN that he thinks there would be a free public version of Helix and then a version that people could customize with their own lab protocols for a monthly fee.

At the ACS meeting, the research and new product development group at ACS presented Helix and other products to meeting-goers and solicited comments for the developers. The feedback on Helix was very positive, says John Tidwell, ACS’s assistant director of research and new product development. Through this feedback, James Rhodes got ideas for other things Helix might do, such as order reagents from chemical suppliers.

C&EN spoke with Elizabeth Meucci, a chemistry graduate student at the University of Michigan, about Helix’s potential usefulness in the lab. Meucci received an Echo as a gift and has been using it to play music and set timers when she and her coworkers run reactions. Alexa can also give them boiling points of common solvents, such as methanol.

“My lab mates have thrown around the idea of making Alexa some sort of science app, but we’re not computer scientists,” Meucci says, so she thinks James Rhodes’s software could be helpful under the right circumstances. She says it would be useful if Helix could get Alexa to interface with electronic lab notebooks so that scientists could record their observations during experiments. But, she says, “it would depend on the setup of the lab.” A small laboratory with a few coworkers would be ideal; it might not work as well in larger labs where a lot of people would want to chat with Alexa at once.

James Rhodes plans to get Helix into the hands of some scientists he knows over the summer to develop it further. He hopes to bring a full-fledged prototype to the ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., this fall.



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