Along for the ride with the astronauts on the International Space Station is a bit of a talking head called CIMON-2.
Designed to interact with the astronauts, the ball-shaped robot is helping them manage tasks, stress and the isolation of living more than 200 miles above their home planet.
Isolation is something many people are dealing with on Earth due to the pandemic. The project leads for the CIMON project think that lessons learned in space during this experiment could be applied on Earth.
“While in space, CIMON provides a possible basis for social assistance systems, which could reduce stress caused by isolation or group dynamic interactions during long-term missions, for example, to the moon or Mars, not dissimilar to situations on Earth,” Matthias Biniok, IBM project lead for CIMON in Germany, said in an email.
“This research is especially important right now as the world is experiencing and learning more about isolation amid the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The next generation of the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, the CIMON-2 robot was built by Airbus at the German Aerospace Center and uses IBM artificial intelligence based on Watson technology. It autonomously navigates around the European Columbus research module on the space station as it goes about assisting the crew.
Since arriving on the space station in December, CIMON-2 has already passed some crucial milestones of his planned three-year journey. (He uses a male voice.)
Model of consistency
Before returning to Earth on February 6, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano went through a series of experiments with CIMON-2.
“CIMON-2 was able to navigate autonomously by verbal commands to a specific point within the Columbus module, a first for CIMON-2,” Biniok said.
“In addition, CIMON-2 can detect the emotions and tone of the astronauts during conversations, thanks to IBM Watson Tone Analyzer, which enables CIMON-2 to become an empathetic conversational partner.”
During his interactions with CIMON-2, Parmitano said the robot remained very “consistent.” CIMON-2 responded promptly to commands to turn and orient himself in various directions. The robot also read out instructions that would guide Parmitano through procedures on the space station. And CIMON-2 took photos and video in the research module and showed them to Parmitano.
When Parmitano asked him to share a fact about space, CIMON-2 said, “The Apollo crew did not have any life insurance.” In a video shared by the German Aerospace Center, Parmitano and NASA astronauts Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir, laughed in surprise.
CIMON-2 is an upgraded version of CIMON, a robot previously flown on the space station alongside astronauts in 2018. The original CIMON marked the world’s first artificial intelligence system on the space station.
The next three years give engineers a chance to test CIMON-2’s enhanced capabilities.
“The current version of the astronaut assistant includes more sensitive microphones and a more developed sense of orientation than its predecessor (CIMON-1),” Biniok said. “The AI capabilities and stability of CIMON-2’s complex software have also been significantly improved. The autonomy of the battery-powered assistant has been increased by about 30 percent.”
CIMON got its name from a reference to the fictional Professor Simon Wright, the “flying brain” robotic assistant from the Japanese “Captain Future” sci-fi series. The robot was created with the ability to understand, speak, hear and see. The astronaut assistant can even nod and shake its head – which is essentially CIMON’s entire body.
In the beginning, the 3D printed plastic was called a “spaceball” by its engineers.
The original CIMON was initially designed to help astronauts efficiently complete their work by explaining instructions and information for repairs and experiments, offering hands-free access to documents and media and acting as a mobile camera. The robot helper can also document experiments, search for items and take inventory.
Stress relief in space
“One additional goal of the project is to explore how an intelligent assistant like CIMON can reduce stress for astronauts,” Biniok said.
“As a partner and companion in space, CIMON supports them in their experiments and maintenance on board the ISS, ultimately reducing their stress exposure. For example, CIMON can provide information on next steps for an experiment or take photos and videos of a specific point in the lab [to] assist the astronauts in their daily work.”
But CIMON-2 can also be a conversational companion for lonely astronauts. CIMON-2 uses two cameras as its eyes for facial recognition and five others to help it autonomously navigate and record video.
CIMON-2 relies on human interaction to learn.
Microphones help it interpret voices and identify its location while fans help it rotate and turn to face astronauts when called. Psychologists helped CIMON-2 develop a personality, and it can respond using different tones, from teasing to sad.
“CIMON is a technology experiment to find out how virtual agents can support astronauts and increase the efficiency of their work,” Biniok said. ” Another important topic is research on isolation and loneliness and the effects of stress on the physical body and how virtual assistants can help astronauts cope with these problems.”