random thoughts on science and tech... yeah, it used to be about electronic lab notebooks but that was a decade ago

The future of electronic lab notebooks…again

So many tablets coming out!

They are getting better, but they’re not really all that different than the tablets of decades past – However, they certainly are gaining consumer support. I mean, I got one of the $99 HP touchpads in the fire sale. For that price why not. And heck I love the thing (I’ve played with the iPad and most of the others, they’re all basically the same). But I can’t help thinking the bottom might fall out of these tablets – they aren’t incredibly useful until they replace laptops. On the couch, when I can reach for either a tablet or laptop, I still reach for the laptop alot out of ease of use (which is supposed to be the tablet’s selling point).

No doubt, some day they WILL replace laptops. I was really hoping for the brain interface thing (LINK TO POST) – that really would have pushed tablets along, obviating the keyboard a bit. The Samsung Series 7 Slate pictured above includes a pressure sensitive Wacom digitizer, which may help a bit…but it’s same old/same old (but we’ll see how consumers like it, maybe if Apple ‘invents’ the digitizer for the iPad then it’ll take off).

So it’s been awhile, let me revise my ELN dream!! I’m debating keeping the brain interface in there because it makes so much possible… we’ll see, this is a dream after all….

ELN software

Interestingly, as I’ve used ELN software over the years (and, in the past, I wouldn’t have really imagined this is the view I would have), the ELN software is not very important at all. What!? So (as I look for a good job with this PhD I got), I may not be winning any jobs from ELN companies by saying this (which I would love to have by the way, if you’re reading). But I’ve tried alot of them out, I’ve used with my project members mostly Onenote, and have organized many network shares for other labs – no real ELN software at all. All this, and there isn’t a big difference. Now searchability and accessibility… and real-time accessibility are what make a huge difference – and these things have actually progressed quite well. Great software is a plus and makes the whole idea of an electronic lab notebook more palatable, but so many other aspects are more important.

Collaboration, real time access

So the greatest thing about an ELN is to be able to actually be sharing the lab notebook over time and space, and to be able to search and find data quickly and easily. THE CLOUD is being shoved down our throats, but (although clouds usually block light) THE CLOUD is a bright spot for the future of ELNs. I get it though, this IS software nowadays – the cloud and apps, so disregard my above derogatory opinion on ELN software (and give me a job). I’ve collaborated with people all over the would on research projects, using skype/video calling to collaborate – sometimes sending/receiving files (with some daring folks actually having a revision of the paper in the cloud!). But I’m sure the future lies in a Facebook style ELN, where they can see all the data and protocols from our online lab notebook, can see if we’re there to chat or video chat about things, make notes, send messages, put forth ideas, quash ideas :) That’s the value prospect for ELNs in the future, the software of organizing and recording the data – you know, that’s not much different than the software for organizing and recording non ELN type data, might as well just implement and use the heavily supported and developed products the rest of the world uses.

Data recording Hardware

So this is where the explosion of smartphones and tablets in the consumer space has really moved things along…finally. But lets go beyond that, the cloud and wireless connectivity offer us many possibilities. Lets forget the brain interface :(  and even tablets. How about science goggles. Built in camera/sound recording, able to project a personal screen of your lab notebook to view, maybe touch sensitive controls on the side (although maybe we don’t want to be touching near our face all the time – voice activated maybe…brain interface, no, no), maybe a Kinect type interface (write things or make gestures on any surface and the camera watches you), … all connecting wirelessly to the cloud ELN real-time. Maybe someone in France sees online that your doing some experiment and says ‘can I watch?’ or discusses some alternatives to the protocol. Crazy, but not far fetched at this point. Well, at least in the very near future the tablets may give ELN productivity a boost.

Outside the box – new ideas

Well the cloud and science goggle idea is ‘boxless’, but let’s really push it. What would be really cool and crazy ELN-wise in the future.

AI – Artificial intelligence :) I’ve been on a programming kick lately (as I was looking at a software development job that fell through), and I spent some time learning about AI programming. Maybe a real-time AI checking your protocols and results and times, could chime in and suggest ‘are you sure you didn’t mean to use this sample’, or ‘based on previous experiments, maybe a more stringent wash would be more successful’. Heck there’s a computer making it’s own discoveries already (LINK TO STORY). Why not let the computers HELP us instead of having them take over the human race apocalypse style. Plus the more cloud and connected this becomes, the more likely it would suggest things based on other people’s work – ‘so and so added more NP-40 to this wash solution and it worked like a charm’. Actually getting a simple AI to just provide you with related info at opportune times would be very useful and not that difficult to implement.

Real-time Inventory/equipment control – I have worked in many different labs and the initial learning curve isn’t hampered as much by learning a new technique (heck that’s fun), but learning where everything is! Even in my current lab of over 4 years, sometimes it’s hard to find what I’m looking for. With correct hardware/software/ELN integration hopefully all this could really reduce a blackhole of productivity – and considering how the scientific community loves to have short term post doc positions, graduate positions, and rotations, empowering new (and old) lab members in this way could prove quite beneficial.

Patent/Drug Licensing Social network – What? This is more a policy change that needs to occur that can then be implemented using ELNs of the future. Companies/Scientists need to recoup research expenses – patents are NOT bad, despite what the media may want you to believe. However, there are flaws, such as a new drug that works great will be found and nobody does research on it after its approved for decades. Another problem is, the drug is expensive (for recouping) to buy, but inexpensive to make usually – and 3rd world countries can’t benefit from them during this time. The idea of licensing the drug to third world countries (with the requirement the drugs not LEAVE said country) doesn’t hurt anyone and actually big pharma makes a little extra. But how about the research? How about the companies farm out availability of there drugs under licenses, to researchers checking different diseases/models under agreed upon rules (like no competing product, no publication,…) – this could help fund struggling researchers, but also help us to understand the science behind some of these drugs (leading to better drugs). Anyway, I’m off target a bit with regards to ELNs, but come on, this is the future all the technical and interfacing problems are resolved :) The thing holding back discovery in the future is how to make discovery lucrative and not hinder advances that should compound upon other advances – as well as be responsible about ‘sharing’ the cures we find with other countries.

Okay, I don’t want to tire my few readers :), so I’ll save more for later. Leave comments with your ideas and critiques!


1 Comment

  1. Roi's Gravatar Roi
    October 27, 2011    

    Is http://www.sparklix.com lab notebook work on it?

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