Meet the new lab assistant | May 2, 2017 Issue - Vol. 95 Issue 19 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 95 Issue 19 | pp. 26-27
Issue Date: May 8, 2017 | Web Date: May 2, 2017

Meet your new lab assistant

One software developer wants to transform Amazon’s personal assistant Alexa into a tool for scientists
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: ACS Meeting News, startups, lab automation, Alexa, Amazon Echo, Helix
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN
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.

Chemical & Engineering News
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Copyright © American Chemical Society
James Davis (May 3, 2017 3:16 PM)
I'd LOVE to see this idea married up to C&EN and perhaps journals.... It would be really great to have C&EN articles read to me while I worked, or maybe even research papers. And can you imagine the impact it could have for the sight-challenged? ACS - get on the stick and talk to this guys about audio versions of articles and papers! You could even give ACS publications authors the opportunity to submit audio files along with paper where they read the paper - at least the narrative part....
Ashley Neybert (May 7, 2017 3:28 PM)
As a blind chemist I can definitely say this would be awesome especially the research paper idea. There are so many websites that I have to simply hire a sighted person to read for me because the set up isn't right for a screen reader or has only PDFs where it just says "picture" and doesn't tell me the text.
Kimberley Cousins (May 3, 2017 3:48 PM)
Wow--this product could be adapted to enable ADA (particularly site impaired) chemists function better. Particularly if able to access data from a sensor (for example, an audible readout from an instrument or balance).
Ashley Neybert (May 7, 2017 3:30 PM)
There is a company called Independence Science that already does this for blind and low vision users. Maybe they could work on it.
Dorothy (May 3, 2017 3:59 PM)
I see a safety benefit more than a workflow benefit. Ask Alexa for SDS info is something that there is s legit need for across all labs.
Thomas (May 3, 2017 4:37 PM)
Good catch, safety info by voice would be very useful after a spill or contamination.
Otto Herrmann (May 3, 2017 4:49 PM)
Although I can see it being a somewhat useful gadget (with price versus usefulness being a point of evaluation), I would worry about it becoming a distraction at critical times when safety may be affected. Of course, use or mis-use of any tool is up to the individual as well as the organization, but I would not want it blindly adopted with too much enthusiasm. I have seen radios as a dangerous lab distraction during detailed operations.
Florian (May 3, 2017 5:49 PM)
It sounds interesting, but gets very problematic once you think about it. You have a listening device sitting inside your lab while preparing reactions that are potentially interesting for patents. And then you are supposed to actively put in lab protocols? Even at home, Alexa has a privacy issue, but in the lab this rises to an entirely new level. Not to mention that administration and controlling will be all over you if you even think about buying chemicals at your own discretion... No thank you!
Julian Silverman (May 3, 2017 5:51 PM)
Um, ThermoFisher should give these out, and you all you would have to do is say 'Alexa, reorder GC Solvents and Vials" with your gloves still on.
Nidia (May 3, 2017 7:47 PM)
I think it would be great for undergraduates who are just starting in chemistry labs as they familarize themselves with lab safety and chemical hazard precautions.
Mr Michael T Deans (May 3, 2017 8:27 PM)
Reminds me of my final biochemistry practical exam at University College London in 1970, I'd told everyone the solution over coffee but a lab technician rescued me by whispering that all reagents were available.
Benjamin G. Boe (May 3, 2017 10:38 PM)
I LOVE my Echo dot (not paid by anyone to say that, I promise), and as soon as I got one, I started thinking about putting it in the lab. IMO, it would be the most useful for the most basic things, "Alexa, what is the boiling point of..." "Alexa, what is the density of..." "...what is the molar mass of ..."

BIG hurdle for me, though, is that you have to tie the device to your Amazon account. 1) how much do you trust your lab-mates 2) how confident are you in the security of the device? What they need is some kind of "Public Account Mode", specifically for things like, a shared lab-space.
Tom Ruginis (May 4, 2017 12:09 PM)
This is already rolling out across the HappiLabs network, but we're using Google Home since the voice transcription is much more accurate. But most common uses are timer, "Order more medium gloves", and "Help me research available antibodies that bind to ______."

The future is upon us!
Tyler (May 4, 2017 12:50 PM)
Research secrecy solution: Have HELIX run self-contained on a local server with no internet connection, only to intranet in the lab. More expensive and subject to usual good or poor conditions for local I.T. maintenance, patches, upgrades. Cell phones stored in metal lockers at entrance to building.
Several users in a single space solution: As above plus keyed to individual vocal signatures.
Noisy environment / multiple users: As above plus run HELIX through individual wireless units and WiFi Virtual Private Network (VPN). Less expensive but with more bandwidth (i.e., quicker) would be to use miked headsets and wired IP connections at workstations.
Maximum secrecy: All of above plus build your lab inside a SCIF. :)
费翔 (May 11, 2017 3:35 AM)
what about develop a combined software including siri and google now

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