I’m Sorry, Alexander, I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That

Getting people to space is extremely difficult, and while getting robots to space is still pretty challenging, it’s much easier. For that reason, robots and probes have been helping us explore the solar system for decades. Now, though, a robot assistant is on board the ISS to work with the astronauts, and rather than something impersonal like a robot arm, this one has a face, can navigate throughout the ship, and can respond to voice inputs.

The robot is known as CIMON, the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion. Built by Airbus, this interactive helper will fly with German astronaut Alexander Gerst to test the concept of robotic helpers such as this one. It is able to freely move about the cabin and can learn about the space it is in without being specifically programmed for it. It processes voice inputs similarly to a smart phone, but still processes requests on Earth via the IBM Watson AI. This means that it’s not exactly untethered, and future implementations of this technology might need to be more self-contained for missions outside of low Earth orbit.

While the designers have listened to the warnings of 2001 and not given it complete control of the space station, they also learned that it’s helpful to create an interactive robot that isn’t something as off-putting as a single creepy red-eye. This robot can display an interactive face on the screen, as well as use the same screen to show schematics, procedure steps, or anything else the astronauts need. If creepy design is more your style though, you can still have HAL watching you in your house.

Thanks to [Marian] for the tip!

21 thoughts on “I’m Sorry, Alexander, I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That

  1. I wonder what he uses for propulsion in the cabin. If the crew members get board with his philosophical side, he looks like it can double as a soccer ball. That would be cool if you could kick and throw him and he would decelerate himself before hitting anything in the confined space. One last Q. Given it is mostly men in space why did they give it a male “personality”? Wouldn’t Marlene Dietrich be a better choice for a German astronauts helper?

    1. > Given it is mostly men in space why did they give it a male “personality”?

      Well, considering how extremely difficult it is to tell an “AI” (or “AS” for “Artificial Stupidity”) something more complex than “tell me what time it is” or to make it conveniently interact in a conversation (as opposed to a one-way-instruction discourse), adding to all these problems by giving it a female personality (and thus the communication issues between girls and boys) I’d say:
      One problem at a time.
      Solving man-machine interaction issues may be a lot simpler than solving man-woman interaction issues.

  2. This would make a great tool for them to do lessons and interactive video with schools without tying up another scientists/astronaut’s time.maybe helps not to have to adjust the camera but have it track you. with zero g it would just need little props really , like a zero g blimp. it could follow pre set camera routes within work areas like factories have robot zones avoiding other at their research. maybe even pull tools/fetch items from others , given everything has barcodes if i remember right, plus he could also keep inventory.even be a emergency light voice controlled to be called to you (given a few around the station) . on the other hand how much in the way could it get ? “Rumba’s in Space!”

  3. I remember seeing something like this 10-15 years ago, running QNX OS, and as I understood was almost ready for flight.

    Is this the same project, or did someone else get the same great idea?

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