First AI in Space: NLP Robot Joins Space Station Crew

AI in space doesn’t have a very good image—just recall the scene in the science fiction epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the supercomputer HAL murders most of a spaceship’s crew. However, space AI is about to get an image makeover, with a friendly robotic assistant that employs technologies including Natural Language Processing (NLP), face recognition and object recognition to aid crew members on the International Space Stations (ISS).

The Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN—or CIMON for short—is designed to assist with tasks, learn new processes and offer solutions to problems. Showing a happy face on its display, CIMON is shaped like a cylindrical block of cheese and is about the size of a medicine ball. CIMON floats around the microgravity interior of the ISS and interacts with astronauts using facial expressions, emotions and voice.
CIMON, which was developed by Airbus and IBM, blasted off for the ISS on June 6, marking a first in the history of space travel.

“CIMON will be the first AI in space-based mission and flight assistance system [for space missions],” said Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads from Airbus, in a company-provided quote. “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.”

The brain of CIMON is furnished by IBM’s Watson AI. IBM offers a range of Watson services and application programming interfaces (API), including Natural Language Understanding for natural language processing and Visual Recognition for object recognition and face recognition.

Alongside Watson, CIMON integrates a neural AI network that can learn and devise its own solutions to challenges. In this way, CIMON will become a sort of colleague to the ISS crew.
“…it is hoped that with CIMON the crew can do more than just work through a prescribed checklist and procedure; they can engage with their assistant and make their work easier when carrying out every day routine tasks,” Airbus stated.

With these capabilities, the system has learned to orient itself, navigate spaces and recognize its human counterparts.
CIMON initially will partner with a crew member to perform three tasks. First, the robot/human team will conduct an experiment with crystals, then collaborate to solve a Rubik’s cube, and lastly perform a medical experiment where CIMON will act as an intelligent flying camera.

In the near future, CIMON will perform more sophisticated tasks, such as studying group dynamics that arise during lengthy space missions, such as NASA’s planned journey to Mars. With the use of emotion-detection AI technology, CIMON could help ensure the success of such missions, according to Airbus.

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