HAL, meet CIMON 2: Space station robot can detect astronaut emotions

Built-in privacy controls prevent IBM's CIMON 2 from being an always-on eavesdropper.

HAL, meet CIMON 2: Space station robot can detect astronaut emotions

The Crew Interactive MObile Companion 2 (CIMON) working with astronauts on the International Space Station is now using a tone analyzer to detect emotions during conversation.

The Watson team at IBM added this skill to the standard set of Watson capabilities. CIMON 2, as it is now called, joined the six astronauts on the ISS last week during a resupply missions. 

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In addition to the software update, the hardware upgrade included more sensitive microphones and an advanced sense of orientation for CIMON. Airbus and the German Aerospace Center are the other members of the CIMON project.

Matthias Biniok, lead Watson architect, said  IBM is using the tone analyzer to understand how CIMON converses with the astronauts.

"We are trying to understand how the machine learning model is working with what astronauts are saying," he said.

CIMON takes in verbal communication but does not analyze facial expressions or audio cues. The intent recognition and classification is done with natural language processing that is part of the standard set of IBM Watson services, he said.

CIMON is not eavesdropping and reporting back to mission control, Biniok said. Astronauts have control over when the tone analyzer is at work.

"If we are trying to analyze emotions for a particular experiment, astronauts will have to activate the function proactively," Biniok said.

Biniok said CIMON 2 has privacy controls built in, in part because the EU's GDPR reaches all the way into orbit. When CIMON is on, data is streamed from the ISS to Earth and back via the Watson AI components on the IBM Cloud.

"CIMON has two buttons: one turns him off," Biniok said. "The other option is the offline button—it cuts all the AI components and the Internet connection. The astronauts can also activate this function with a spoken command."  

When CIMON is in the offline mode, he holds his position, closes his eyes, and "sleeps."

"We wanted to implement this so that the astronauts feel they have control of CIMON, which is important for acceptance of the technology," he said.

Biniok said a reason the space agencies chose IBM for this project was because of the company's data privacy policies. 

"We say that the data and the models always belong to the customer and you can decide if you want IBM to use your data to improve our own algorithms or not," he said.

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The software identifies these emotions using natural language processing:

  • Excited
  • Frustrated
  • Impolite 
  • Polite
  • Sad
  • Satisfied
  • Sympathetic

CIMON's jobs in space

The round robot's chief responsibility is to be a lab assistant as the astronauts conduct scientific research projects on the ISS. CIMON reminds crew members of the sequence of steps required to conduct research experiments. The crew can ask CIMON 2 what the next step is or which tool is the right one to use. CIMON also does mobile video documentation for the astronauts.

"The astronaut can say, 'Come here, turn 30 degrees and hold,' or 'Go to experiment 64 and take a picture,'" he said. 

Biniok said that CIMON has a formal work personality as well as a more casual conversational mode. When the robot is helping with research projects or documentation, his tone is helpful and very straightforward.

"One of my colleagues describes CIMON as a typical German—very straightforward, very short answers, and trying to help all the time," he said.

CIMON also has a small talk mode when he tries to match an astronaut's needs at a particular moment.

CIMON is completely autonomous and flies throughout the space station. CIMON's AI components are run through the IBM cloud in Frankfurt, Germany. Airbus supplied the robot's guidance, navigation, and control components. The German Aerospace Center is the third partner in the collaboration. CIMON's first trip to the International Space Station was in 2018 and he came back to Earth earlier this year.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft carried crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting laboratory to support the Expedition 61 crew for the 19th mission under NASA's commercial resupply services contract. These science investigations went up on the resupply flight with CIMON:

  • Microgravity research
  • Molecular pathways related to muscle and bone loss during spaceflight 
  • Gravity research focused on instrument development  
  • Flame behavior in microgravity
  • Barley seeds in microgravity
  • Docking station for the Robotic External Leak Locator (RELL)

The current crew on the space station is:

  • Christina Koch - American, electrical engineer
  • Jessica Meir, Ph.D. - American, marine biologist
  • Andrew Morgan, MD - Flight engineer, American, emergency room physician
  • Luca Parmitano - Crew commander, Italian, on his second space station mission
  • Oleg Skripochka - Russian cosmonaut, on his third space station mission
  • Alexander Skvortsov - Russian, on his third space station mission

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