Innovation

AI in space: Astronauts will get floating robot assistant thanks to IBM, Airbus

The digital assistant CIMON features a version of IBM Watson, and will help astronauts complete tasks on the International Space Station.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Airbus and IBM announced a floating, AI-based digital assistant called CIMON that will assist astronauts in completing tasks on the International Space Station.
  • The AI assistant CIMON features a modified version of IBM Watson, and is designed to help astronauts perform routine work, by displaying procedures or offering solutions to problems.

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) will soon gain a new helpful companion: A floating artificial intelligence (AI)-based digital assistant that will help them get work done in space.

The assistant, CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN), was designed by IBM and Airbus. It will take the form of an 11-pound, basketball-sized device that can float alongside the astronauts, according to an Airbus press release.

Running a modified version of IBM Watson, CIMON is designed to support astronauts in routine tasks, by displaying procedures, or offering solutions to problems, thanks to its neural AI network and its ability to learn.

CIMON will allow crew members to not only work through checklists and procedures, but to engage with the assistant, making work easier and increasing efficiency, according to Airbus. It can even serve as an early warning system for technical problems, the release noted.

Insert HAL jokes here.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)

"In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system," Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads at Airbus, said in the release. "We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station."

CIMON's entire metal and plastic structure was made with 3D printing, Jaumann said in the release.

Similar to Siri or Alexa, CIMON can recognize speech, has a synthetic voice, and is capable of some interactions with humans, as noted by our sister site ZDNet. While these assistants have become common on Earth, in space, these interactive capabilities could be even more useful and relevant.

The Watson AI will go on its first mission to the ISS with astronaut Alexander Gerst during the European Space Agency's Horizons mission, between June and October 2018. CIMON was trained partially using voice samples and photos of Gerst, as well as procedures and plans of the ISS. Gerst helped choose CIMON's screen face and computer voice so he could more easily make friends with his new electronic colleague, the release noted.

SEE: Exomedicine arrives: How labs in space could pave the way for healthcare breakthroughs on Earth (TechRepublic cover story) | download the PDF version

After functionally testing the system, Gerst will work with CIMON on the ISS on three tasks: Experimenting with crystals, solving a Rubik's cube, and performing a complex medical experiment using CIMON as a flying camera.

"In the medium term, aerospace researchers also plan to use the CIMON project to examine group effects that can develop over a long period of time in small teams and that may arise during long-term missions to the Moon or Mars," the release noted. "Social interaction between people and machines, between astronauts and assistance systems equipped with emotional intelligence, could play an important role in the success of long-term missions."

Here on Earth, CIMON could also potentially be used in the future in hospitals and for social care, Airbus said in the release.

Also see

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Image: Airbus

About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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