Over the past year or so IBM’s football-like floating space robot, called Crew Interactive Mobile Companion or CIMON for short, has recorded a number of firsts on its first mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that include becoming the “first ever autonomous free floating robot to operate aboard the ISS,” and the “first ever smart astronaut assistant.”
But CIMON is much more than just a floating space Alexa and the new and improved CIMON-2, that just launched on board SpaceX’s ISS resupply mission, is heading back to the ISS with an emotional upgrade which means it now has an even better EQ.
The CIMON project is the product of a collaboration between IBM, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Airbus, and its aim is to “design and develop a robotic assistant for use in space that can serve a number of functions” including things as mundane as helping astronauts retrieve information and keep track of the tasks they’re doing on board the station, as well as more wild things such as potentially helping alleviate or curb mental health issues and the effects of social problems that might crop up in an environment where small teams frequently work in close quarters with one another for long periods of time.
“The goal of [the first mission] was really to commission CIMON and to really understand if [he] can actually work with the astronauts — if there are experiments that he can support,” explained IBM’s Matthias Biniok, project manager. “So that was very successful — the astronauts really liked working with CIMON.”
“Now, we are looking at the next version CIMON-2 that has more capability,” Biniok continues. “For example, he has better software and better hardware that’s been improved based on the outcomes that we had with mission one and we have also some new features. So for example, on the AI side we have something called emotional intelligence (EQ), based on our IBM Watson Tone Analyzer, with which we’re trying to understand and analyze the emotions during a conversation between CIMON and the astronauts to see how they’re feeling — if they’re feeling joyful, if something makes them angry, and so on.”
That, Biniok says, could help evolve CIMON into a robotic countermeasure for something called “group think,” a phenomenon wherein a group of people who work closely together gradually have all their opinions migrate toward consensus or similarity. A CIMON with proper emotional intelligence could detect when this might be occurring, and react by either providing an objective, neutral view — or even potentially taking on a contrarian or “Devil’s advocate” perspective,” Biniok says – something that it might be able to do if it is combined with another of IBM’s projects Project Debater which has recently conducted several debates with humans on everything from the risks of AI through to the benefits of space exploration.
That’s a future aim, but in the near term CIMON can have a lot of practical benefit simply by freeing up time spent on certain tasks by astronauts themselves.
“Time is super expensive on the International Space Station,” Biniok said. “And it’s very limited, so if we could save some crew time with planning, that would be super helpful to the astronauts. CIMON can also support experiments — imagine that you’re an astronaut up there, you have complex research experiments going on, and there’s a huge amount of documentation for that. And if you are missing some information, or you have a question about it, then you have to look up in this documentation, and that takes time. Instead of doing that, you could actually just ask CIMON — so for example, ‘what’s the next step CIMON?,’ or ‘why am I using Teflon and not any other materials?’ ”
CIMON can also act as a mobile documentarian, using its onboard video camera to record experiments and other activities on the space station. It’s able to do so autonomously, too, Biniok notes, so that an astronaut can theoretically ask it to navigate to a specific location, take a photo, then return and show that photo to the astronaut.
This time around, CIMON will be looking to stay on the ISS for a much longer span than the first version, up to three years, in fact. Biniok had nothing specific to share on plans beyond that, but did say that long term, the plan is absolutely to extend CIMON’s mission to “include the Moon, Mars and beyond.”
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