X-Message-Number: 33255
Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2011 06:49:14 EST
Subject: Automated Data Collection

In a message dated 1/19/2011 2:00:07 A.M. Pacific Standard Time,  

Mike Darwin writes:
> MD: I'll leave this question to Brian,  because he can discourse at
> length on the magic that is differential  scanning calorimetery
> (DSC). DSC can detect  the minutest of  phase changes in a sample,
> and if your numbers all sum out   right, then you can be pretty sure
> "what's what" after cooling to any  given  temperature. I was still
> at 21CM when Brian began this  work, and it was horrible  - the kind
> of thing that would drive  me barking mad. Basically you crimp a
> tiny  volume of solution  'just so' into sealed metal pans, and put
> them in the device  and  cool them. Of course, the catch is, that
> you must do this thousands  and  thousands of times to build a
> picture of how different  solutions behave under  different regimens
> of cooling and  re-warming. It is boring, repetitive  and truly
> dull   work.>>

These days, this is what one builds small robots to do.  (That is what
has made much of recent science possible. No one could handle  the
precision and boredom associated with many modern data  collection
tasks -- automation is why they are possible at all.  Luckily,
technology to do things like that has gotten dirt cheap in the  last
decade or so.)


I'm  often surprised by what is automated and what is not.  

I love to visit factories of all kinds everywhere I go (hospitals  too), 
and I see that my interest must be shared by others, because there are  now 
these (to me at least) absolutely captivating TV programmes like "How It's  
Made." In Chen Chang, I saw all kinds of factories, and I observed a lot of  
automation, but only where cleanliness, rapidity and high precision were  
required. Where people can do, they are still used. By contrast, in Germany,  
the UK and the US, even very basic tasks that are not very sophisticated are  
automated. The difference is the cost of labor (and the regulatory burden). 
As  it turns out, it costs a tremendous amount of money to automate any 
kind of  precision, multi-step process. 
A machine to manufacture needles may cost upwards of a million dollars.  Of 
course, that's a bargain compared to paying the people required  (in a  

developed country) to do the job. Aside from the high direct  costs, people are
a pain the arse. And even then, costs are as low as  they are because a lot 
of manufacturing automation will not be a 'one-off' -  other people need 
needle making machines, too. 
Preparing the sample for analysis in the DSC requires (at least) these  
1) Someone has to mix up the various solutions that are to be evaluated.  
These solutions will 'one-offs' that are made up just for the purpose of  
evaluation. It's not like you are taking samples from various batches of  
medicine, soda, beer, etc., that being produced en masse for commerce.
2) The DSC 'pans' are very small, indeed tiny little metal containers -  
smaller than most hearing aid batteries. They must be filled with care and  
precision: no air bubbles can be present, and care must be taken to avoid  
contamination of the sample with water from the atmosphere in the case of  
hygroscopic CPAs (i.e., most of them).
3) The pan must be very artfully closed and crimped, and only then is it  
place in the DSC. 
The whole thing is a nightmare of careful and precise labor. And of  

course, you can't mix up 1 mL  of your putative CPA mixtures, because you  can't
measure that precisely or repeatedly. [Actually, you can, but  

microchesmistry has its own headaches and is only economical if the reagents  
cost a 
Could a machine do all this? Absolutely! Just be prepared to shell out  

$1-2 million and to spend a couple of years ironing out the bugs. AND you will
have a lot of overhead in the form of skilled people to maintain the 
machine.  Turn out, wasting a brilliant mind like Brian Wowk's on such dreary 
business  is cost effective. Also, there are technicians who can be trained to 
do this  work.
The brutal fact is that this civilization does not much value intellects  
such as Brian's. Nor do they value any intellect that does not provide a  
return on investment within ~5 years, on average.
As someone who has had direct experience trying to automate some  

comparatively simple things, such as cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB) (which  is 
simple to automated compared to some of the unbelievably complex and  exactly 
manufacturing processes I've seen automated), it can be surprisingly  

difficult, even if you have you have experts, and enormous computing power at  
disposal. CPB is arguably no more complex than flying and landing a  

jetliner - and that process has been fully automated for at least  a decade. 
you still need a pilot, and you would still need a  perfusionist in 

automated CPB, but such automation provides enormous added  safety (used wisely)
it also may allow for the use of knowledgeable, but  less skilled 

personnel, in emergent situations - such as in-field CPB for  refractory cardiac
arrest. [You can have knowledge without reflexes!] 
However, such automation is challenging, and even if achieved, there has  
to be a market for it. Due mostly to regulatory constraints, that market is  
not there for automated CPB. That means you have no economies of scale and  
that further drives up the price and drives down the reliability of any 

system  you do develop. Wide use = robustness and reliability. As to automating
CPA  evaluation, well, that is so far from a priority for this civilization 
it is  impossible to put into words.  At least not words I can post here  
Mike Darwin

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