From now on, the astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) will have a new addition to the merry group living and working some 250 miles (400 kilometers) away from our planet.
That’s because IBM is sending an AI robot to assist the ISS crew in their scientific endeavors and also to keep them company, reports FOX News.
Named CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion), the AI robot is traveling to its new home in space later today and will be shipped off to the ISS on SpaceX’s 15th resupply mission (CRS-15) launching on June 29 from Cape Canaveral.
According to Spaceflight Now, SpaceX is slated to send nearly 6,000 pounds (about 2,700 kilograms) of supplies and science gear to the ISS later today, making another commercial delivery with the same Dragon cargo capsule that made a trip to the space station in July 2016.
The spacecraft will be blasting off from Complex 40 launch pad at 5:42 a.m. EDT (09:42 GMT), atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched NASA’s TESS planet-hunting satellite a mere two months ago.
As NASA points out, the CIMON project, developed by IBM and Airbus for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), “explores the use of AI as a way to mitigate crew stress and workload during long-term spaceflight.”
The Verge describes CIMON as something that resembles “a volleyball with a computer screen on one side,” while FOX News has likened it to HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey movie.
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But IBM’s Matthias Biniok points out that the 11-pound (five kilograms) AI robot is actually inspired by a character from the Captain Future comic book dating back to the 1940s and early 1950s.
“CIMON is similar to Professor Simon [a character that trained Captain Future] and that became the base for CIMON, a TV show from years ago,” said Biniok, who led the development of CIMON’s artificial intelligence technology at IBM Watson.
So, what does CIMON do? Well, Airbus explains it best.
“CIMON is designed to support astronauts in performing routine work, for example by displaying procedures or — thanks to its ‘neural’ AI network and its ability to learn — offering solutions to problems. It uses Watson AI technology from the IBM cloud and, with its face, voice and artificial intelligence, becomes a genuine ‘colleague’ on board.”
In a recent news release, the German space company states that this is the first European project of its kind, revealing that CIMON is “a kind of flying brain” tasked with assisting the ISS crew and with helping to “increase efficiency” by making their job easier.
But there’s more to CIMON than just doing science work on board Earth’s orbiting lab. The floating AI robot, which is built to move around the space station with a unique air propulsion system that uses 14 fans to suck and expel the air inside the ISS, is also there to offer moral support.
The ball-shaped robot has microphones and cameras that allow it to interact with the astronauts, who can talk to CIMON about whatever’s on their mind. The robot also has a digital “mouth” and is designed to “imitate a human,” being able to express emotions and even offer compassion (as seen in the demonstration video below), says Biniok.
“CIMON has Watson’s brain and understands what the astronaut is saying. It knows how to answer and what features to show. One of the reasons why Airbus selected IBM was we can go into great depths and go into deep conversations, using Watson.”
Once aboard the ISS, the AI robot will be first tested by German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who has already trained with CIMON before heading to the space station in early June. But while the floating bot is programmed to recognize Gerst’s face and voice, it can also interact with everyone who calls out its name and can follow the astronauts around engaging in small talk.
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Another feature of the AI robot is that it can act as a flying webcam, which keeps all the recorded data secure and private, as well as an “early warning system” that points out possible technical problems, reveals Biniok.
“In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” said Airbus’ Manfred Jaumann, who leads the company’s Microgravity Payloads department.