Basketball-shaped AI robot joins the crew of the ISS

An artificially intelligent (AI) robot is being sent up on a rocket today to help astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS).

The Crew Interactive MObile companioN (CIMON) is able to see, hear, understand, speak and fly. It is roughly spherical, has a diameter of 32cm  and weighs 5kg.

The English-speaking droid will help German astronaut Alexander Gerst conduct experiments on the ISS.

“What we’re trying to do with CIMON is to increase the efficiency of the astronaut,” said Matthias Biniok, an engineer for IBM and one of the lead architects behind CIMON’s AI.

From this summer, the robot will become the new ‘crew member’ on the ISS, in order to demonstrate cooperation between humans and intelligent machines in the form of a technology experiment.

CIMON allows the astronaut to keep both hands free, with no need to manually operate a computer.

Thanks to this fully voice-controlled access to documents and media, the astronaut can navigate through operating and repair instructions and procedures for experiments and equipment. CIMON will serve as a complex database of all the necessary information for working on the ISS, and can also be used as a mobile camera for documentation purposes.

It will verbally communicate step-by-step instructions to Gerst during three planned science experiments on the space station’s European module.

Currently, astronauts read these instructions from a laptop, which Biniok says is an arduous process that a responsive, hands-free companion like CIMON can replace.

“Right now our main mission is to support the astronauts with their daily tasks to save time, because time is the most valuable and most expensive thing on the ISS,” he said.

The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) plans for CIMON to undergo three one-hour sessions to demonstrate how well the robot can help with experiments, like a crystal growth study, a test for its eight on-board cameras and an exercise to help Gerst solve a Rubik’s cube.

Biniok said the concept of CIMON was inspired by a 1940s science fiction comic series set in space, where a sentient, brain-shaped robot named Professor Simon mentors an astronaut named Captain Future.

Philipp Schulien, a German engineer for CIMON’s hardware contractor, Airbus, said extending astronauts’ abilities in space is imperative for future space exploration journeys, like the crewed missions to Mars that are scheduled to take off as early as 2020.

“There are certain effects that might appear during long-term missions like the so-called groupthink effect,” Schulien said, citing a behavioural phenomenon in which humans that spend lengthy periods of time in isolation are driven to make irrational decisions. “Long-isolated groups tend to stop communicating with the ground,” he said.

A robot like CIMON with human-like personalities could help mitigate the disorientation astronauts may feel in space, Schulien said.

CIMON is among 2675kg of cargo launching to the ISS on Friday, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It will return to Earth on 13 December.

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