Emotion-sensing robot launches to assist space station astronauts

IBM's CIMON2 robot is heading to the International Space Station

The artificial intelligence-powered astronaut CIMON made way for the International Space Station on Thursday, after being launched from Florida by the private company SpaceX.

CIMON is a spherical technology demonstrator for human-machine interaction and features artificial intelligence (AI).

A joint project by IBM, Airbus, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), CIMON-2 caught a SpaceX rocket from Kennedy Space Center on December 4.

The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (or CIMON, for short) recorded a number of firsts on its initial mission to the International Space Station, which took place last November, including becoming the first-ever autonomous free-floating robot to operate aboa...

It can also recognize, learn from, and bone with crew members through natural language; offer creative solutions to tricky challenges; and even serve as a security guard, noticing potential problems before they become risky.

"CIMON-2 includes more sensitive microphones, more robust computers, and IBM Watson Tone Analyzer technology, which uses linguistic analysis to detect emotion from the tone of a conversation", IBM wrote in a blog post.

Airbus predicts that CIMON-2 will be active on the ISS for at least three years. We spoke to Matthias Biniok, Lead Watson Architect for IBM Germany.

Similar in shape to CIMON-1 with a spherical shape, slight smile and ability to move around the ISS, CIMON-2 is meant to be on the floating laboratory "for up to three years", Biniok noted.

He was initially created 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.

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"Its AI capabilities and the stability of its complex software applications have also been significantly improved". "As with the original CIMON, CIMON-2 will use a dozen internal rotors to maneuver weightlessly, nod or shake its head when listening, and follow an astronaut autonomously or on command".

CIMON-2 and the original CIMON robot look like floating spheres with one flattened side.

Engineers designed the robot to assist space crew members in carrying out scientific experiments.

And programmers have this time promised a more friendly, conversational version, capable of analysing the astronauts' emotions and acting in an appropriate manner.

That, Biniok says, could help evolve CIMON into a robotic countermeasure for something called "groupthink", a phenomenon wherein a group of people who work closely together gradually have all their opinions migrate toward consensus or similarity. He can also document experiments, search for items and take inventory. "Thus, those fears are only derived from science fiction movies and CIMON's actions are always explainable".

His personality has been on display before.

And for anyone having flashbacks to Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey", astronauts can even ask CIMON what he thinks about the sci-fi AI and he'll respond with "I'm afraid I cannot do that" in the same eerie tone.

The CIMON project is a collaboration between the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Airbus and IBM, which aims to develop a robot wizard that will allow astronauts to save time on the ISS. The assistant could also support astronauts in emotionally complex situations, for instance when the Earth fades from view or mission tasks become particularly stressful.

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