Astronauts will soon be guided by a floating computer brain

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Mar 7, 2018

The newest crew member boarding the ISS isn’t who — or what — you‘d expect.

CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN) is not an astronaut, but the 3D-printed AI assistant developed by Airbus and IBM for the DLR Space Administration will support ISS astronauts by displaying procedures and using its problem-solving capabilities. Its entire plastic and metal structure is a wonder of 3D printing. Its “brains” are powered by Watson AI tech from the IBM cloud.

The human members of the crew better not mind one of their colleagues being a disembodied robot head with a digital face.

“In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” said Airbus Head of Microgravity Payloads Manfred Jaumann. “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 computer head can actually engage with astronauts as they go through routine tasks making things more efficient and secure and even alerting about technical issues before a technical glitch becomes a serious problem, boosting the mission’s overall success.

CIMON in microgravity. Credit: Airbus

Astronaut Alexander Gerst has been testing out CIMON and will continue with this training until he brings electronic brain on board as part of ESA’s new Horizons mission. Gerst’s input was used to customize its voice and onscreen face so it wouldn’t freak him out too much. Just as Gerst was getting used to CIMON, the “intelligent” computer was being shown images and listening to voice samples so it could become more familiar with its human colleague.

“Horizons are a symbol for the unknown and when I gaze at the horizon I cannot help but wonder what lies behind it,” Gerst said. For this reason we run scientific experiments on the Space Station: we want to broaden our horizons as humankind.”

When CIMON enters microgravity, Gerst will partner with it for a series of experiments, including trials with crystals, solving a Rubik’s cube (the eternal struggle any ‘80s kid can remember). It will then level up to acting as the flying camera that hovers over a more complex medical experiment in zero-G.

CIMON’s first mission, which may be as early as later this month, will start with a probationary period for the robot, which will only have certain capabilities switched on. The it will be allowed to perform will increase. It will eventually observe the long-term effects of small groups in space for an extended period of time, which will help gauge how a future Mars mission will affect small groups of astronauts.

Space isn’t the only place computers that think like CIMON could prove to be useful. While they might not seem to magically float on Earth, they could be used as hospital and social care assistants. Those are both situations in which you can never have enough brains on hand.

(via Airbus)