An AI robot named CIMON has recently joined the astronauts on the International Space Station. Back on Earth, the Airbus designed CIMON weighed just five kilograms. CIMON is orb-like with a large screen that can display cartoonish pictures or data and instructions. CIMON represents a sneak peek at what future human-robot interactions could look like on space missions, with its ability to improve safety and increase the complexity of tasks and experiments.
While CIMON cannot process data itself, data is beamed to and from the ISS using the station’s WiFi network which uses satellites to communicate with the command center on Earth in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany via a significant number of firewalls and VP tunnels for security. Signal time via satellite is approximately 0.4 seconds each way, and despite how far away the ISS is to Earth, CIMON responds within a couple of seconds after a question is asked.
“CIMON represents the realization of an Airbus vision. It is a huge step forward for human spaceflight, achieved by working in cooperation with our partners,” says Till Eisenberg, Project Manager at Airbus. “With CIMON, we have laid the foundations for social assistance systems that are designed to be used under extreme conditions.”
IBM Watson is the robot’s AI system for understanding and responding to questions. “If CIMON is asked a question or addressed, the Watson AI firstly converts this audio signal into text, which is understood, or interpreted, by the AI,” said Matthias Biniok, IBM project lead on CIMON. IBM Watson understands both the content in context of the questions and the intent behind the question. This results in an answer that is then converted into speech and sent back to the ISS for CIMON to communicate. The result is a natural, dynamic spoken dialogue.
German astronaut Alexander Gerst, the current ISS commander, was first to speak with CIMON. He said, “Wake up, CIMON.” To which CIMON responded, “What can I do for you?” CIMON and Gerst’s first assignment together was to perform an experiment. After verifying Gerst’s identity using facial recognition, CIMON positioned itself appropriately and then provided step-by-step instructions on how to conduct the student-designed experiment utilizing crystals.