Technology

New Robot With ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Arrives at Space Station


The population of the International Space Station (ISS) is about to go up by one, but it won’t be another human occupant. It’ll be an AI-powered flying robot called CIMON-2, a followup to the experimental CIMON robot that debuted last year. The ISS’ newest AI bot should reach the station in a few days, and its designers hope CIMON-2 can prove even more useful to the crew than its predecessor. 

The CIMON project is a collaboration between German Aerospace Center (DLR), Airbus, and IBM that aims to design a robotic assistant that can save astronauts time on the ISS. Every minute on the station is valuable, and some of the research carried out there cannot be done anywhere else. CIMON can read experimental procedures, record video, and even have simple conversations with astronauts. Astronauts can even tell CIMON to go snap a photo of something on the station and report back. 

CIMON-2 and the original CIMON robot look like floating spheres with one flattened side. There’s a screen on the flat side that can display images or data, but it has a humanoid face at rest. IBM seems to want to avoid any HAL 9000 comparisons by making CIMON look extra friendly. 

The original CIMON debuted in mid-2018 and operated on the ISS for 14 months. Now, CIMON-2 is on its way to the station after launching aboard a SpaceX resupply mission on December 4th. While the new CIMON looks like the old one, IBM says it has improved the robot’s spatial awareness with ultrasonic sensors. It can also respond to human emotions thanks to IBM’s Watson Tone Analyzer. 

Non-robots holding CIMON-2 before its launch.

CIMON-1 proved that an AI-powered robot could operate on the ISS and understand commands given to it by the crew. The emotional angle for CIMON-2 could give the robot more context when interacting with humans. For example, CIMON-2 might be able to understand when a person is in a good mood, causing it to be extra chatty. If its humanoid partner is frustrated or preoccupied, it could change its behavior to be less distracting. IBM even sees a day when CIMON could detect group-think in a conversation and combat it by acting as a devil’s advocate. 

Airbus predicts that CIMON-2 will remain active on the ISS for at least three years. In the future, the companies want to export the Watson AI on robots that will travel to the Moon and Mars to aid astronauts.

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