It’s like the HAL-9000, but with less homicidal mania and more interest in Rubik’s Cubes.
Science fiction is filled with robotic personalities that accompany human astronauts on their voyages: Gerty in Moon, TARS in Interstellar, Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and of course, HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But now, an actual free-floating robotic head known as CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN), will bring these speculative visions to life, assuming it is safely delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) this June.
CIMON is on track to be the “first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” on the station, according to Manfred Jaumann, Airbus’s head of microgravity payloads, who described the bot as a “a kind of flying brain” in a Monday statement.
The robot weighs five kilograms (11 pounds) and is about the size of a basketball. It was developed by the aeronautics company Airbus, IBM’s Watson AI laboratory, and the DLR Space Administration, Germany’s space agency.
When German astronaut Alexander Gerst heads back to the ISS for his second expedition this summer, CIMON will work with him as an occasional assistant. Gerst will test out the bot’s AI skills on three experiments—one involving crystal research, another with medical applications, and a third in which the robot/human pair will solve a Rubik’s Cube together.
With its humanoid face and voice, developed with input from Gerst, CIMON should be able to recognize its human partner on the station, and interact with him verbally. Various ISS protocols will be programmed into the free-floating head, along with a camera, so that it can make itself useful to Gerst during their joint experiments.
CIMON’s first orbital mission will end when Gerst returns to Earth in late fall of 2018, but Airbus plans to deploy the robot again in the future. In fact, the company eventually wants CIMON “to examine group effects that can develop over a long period of time in small teams,” according to its statement. When the time comes for astronauts to spend years in space—for instance, on trips to Mars—emotionally smart robots like CIMON might be essential assistants and mediators between crew members.
CIMON is a pretty exceptional robot head, but it’s not the first free-floating bot to join an ISS crew. NASA’s SPHERES program, which developed three polyhedrons as experimental platforms, have been used on the station since 2006, while JAXA, the Japanese space agency, tested out its adorable anthropomorphic robot drone, called INT-BALL, on the ISS in 2017.
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