No. 1 Challenge to Automated Chemical Synthesis

At the end of this review on the outlook of automated chemical synthesis (which you may have trouble accessing, because Nature magazine is weird about open access.  Title is Organic synthesis: The robo-chemist), Dr. Grzybowski says “the only thing that can kill [the effort to make an automated synthesis machine] is scepticism.”  I disagree.  The thing that will kill the effort is closed scientific research.  

Just being able to access further research about all of this is a big enough hurtle in itself, but I have read what I can and here is my reaction to the Professor's claim.

Dr. Grzybowski and his underlings have successfully built and demonstrated the efficacy of a new software that agglomerates abstracts housed on Reaxis, a closed source chemical reaction database, and suggests potential synthetic pathways to a variety of different molecules.

This is a huge feat, no doubt, but it has taken years and years for Dr. Grzybowski’s lab to build this database, which they intend to keep closed source and license to Reaxis for use in their software.

I think that keeping this software closed-source makes great sense economically speaking.  Surely there is a huge need for this kind of software, and the developers of it stand to make loads of money from it.  

However, my prediction is that it will not catch on and it will never end up being very good software, because closed-source necessarily means competition and non-collaboration with other people who are working at developing the very same software and banging their heads against the same exact problems.  

There are thousands of people out there who would be interested in collaborating to make an automated organic synthesis machine, but the person probably best suited to manage that effort is planning to make an inferior product that will sell for much more.

Don’t mistake my scepticism for the “scepticism” that Dr. Grzybowski warns against in the linked article, though.  I have no doubt that a synthesis machine can and will be built.  My scepticism relates to the fact that automating chemical synthesis is an enormous task, and that open collaboration amongst all chemists will the way to do it.  Dr. Grzybowski, being one of the leading chemical researchers in the world ought to recognize this better than anybody else and lead the effort.