CIMON says: Say hello to your new AI pal-bot, space station 'nauts

Giant grinning cartoon-like Tamagotchi thing built by Airbus, IBM blasts up into orbit

The International Space Station will get its first AI-powered friend-droid by next week, after it was bundled into a Dragon capsule and launched into orbit aboard a Space X Falcon Rocket on Friday.

It’s a weird looking circular unit measuring five kilograms with no arms or legs, just a rectangular screen, kind of like a giant white Tamagotchi. On the screen flashes a simple cartoon face known as CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN), pronounced as Simon.

CIMON was developed by Airbus and IBM. The AI bit, presumably, comes from some sort of programmed neural network that uses some of the tools from IBM’s Watson platform.

“In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system,” said Manfred Jaumann, Head of Microgravity Payloads at Airbus. The floating face will help astronauts perform day-to-day tasks by displaying procedures such as repair instructions, and can respond to simple voice commands in English.

Robonaut shakes hands with with his human counterpart. Pic: NASA

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Initially, scientists will monitor how the grinning idiot box interacts with Alexander Gerst, a German European Space Agency astronaut. CIMON was trained to recognize Gerst using his voice samples and photos. It responds more readily to him, since the two will be working together to perform three tasks.

They will conduct experiments with semiconductor crystals, solve a giant Rubik’s cube, and perform a medical experiment with CIMON acting as a camera. It sounds like a glorified voice-controlled Amazon Alexa assistant. You're baffled? Tell us about it: we're baffled, too.

CIMON's capabilities are pretty limited, although, researchers hope to use it to see how it can monitor and contribute to spacemen's well being and group morale. Astronauts have to undergo rigorous psychological evaluation to see if they can cope with the isolated environment of space for long periods of time, and it's thought CIMON may be useful as a plastic pal that's fun to be with.

Bots like CIMON may help encourage social interaction between people and machines in the future, and could boost the success of long term missions, Airbus reckoned.

Other goodies being carried on Space X’s Dragon capsule include a group of genetically modified mice and packets of Death Wish Coffee containing a whopping average of 728 milligrams of caffeine per 12 oz (~340 grams) serving. ®

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