An artificial intelligence companion built to assist astronauts launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Friday, making it the first robot with AI ever sent into space. Dubbed the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, or CIMON, the device will aid in experiments by German astronaut Alexander Gerst, on the International Space Station, according to Reuters.

“What we’re trying to do with CIMON is to increase the efficiency of the astronaut,”  according to Matthias Biniok, an IBM engineer who helped to create the AI behind CIMON.

CIMON will verbally communicate with Gerst during three experiments on the European module of the space station. The hands-free interaction will save astronauts the trouble of reading instructions for experiments from a laptop, boosting efficiency and saving time.

“Experiments sometimes consist of more than 100 different steps,” Biniok explained.

CIMON was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Friday. It will display an expressive animated face on its screen, will be able to fly using an air propulsion system, and even make small talk with astronauts. It is powered by a version of IBM’s Watson, which won a victory against “Jeopardy!” champions in 2011. It has been specially trained to recognized Gerst’s voice and face.

“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,” according to Biniok.

The German Aerospace Center will test CIMON’s capabilities in three experiments, including a study of crystal growth, a test of eight on-board cameras, and one in which CIMON will instruct Gerst on how to solve a Rubik’s cube.

The robot will come back to Earth in December.

According to Biniok, the inspiration for CIMON came from a 1940s sci-fi comic, with a robot named Professor Simon advising an astronaut. The design also echoes HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Technology like CIMON could play a crucial role in long-term missions such as the crewed Mars missions planned for the next decade.

Phillipp Schulien is an engineer for Airbus, which served as a hardware contractor for CIMON. He notes that crews that spend a long period of time in isolation can be prone to poor decision making, saying:

“There are certain effects that might appear during long-term missions like the so-called groupthink effect…long, isolated groups tend to stop communicating with the ground.”

Technology like CIMON could serve to keep monitor these crews, and the robot’s human-like qualities could help to mitigate some of these effects in the first place.


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