When Arthur C Clarke invented the sociopathic computer HAL 9000, which menaced astronauts in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he insisted it was merely a coincidence that the name was just one letter shift away from IBM.
So it was all the stranger when IBM designed the first cyborg-companion to the International Space Station (ISS) last year only for it to refuse to follow instructions and sulkily accuse crew members of being ‘mean.’
Now, following a reboot, a second version of the floating basketball-sized robot has just returned to the ISS, and this time programmers have promised a more friendly, conversational version which is capable of analysing the emotions of the team and acting in an appropriate manner.
“If required, it can switch from being a scientific assistant to an empathetic conversation partner,” said Matthias Biniok, IBM project lead.
Named CIMON-2 (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion-2) the robot has been designed by Airbus and used uses IBM’s artificially intelligent Watson technology.
Like its predecessor, CIMON-2 will be allowed to float around the Columbus European research module and, unless it antagonises astronauts, will remain on board the ISS for three years.
When German astronaut Alexander Gerst tested the first robot out last year, it refused to switch off a song, and told Gerst ‘Be nice please’ when he repeated the request.
When Gerst replied: ‘I am nice!’ CIMON said: ‘Don’t be so mean please.’
The new robot assistant is able to show and explain information and instructions for scientific experiments and repairs, allowing astronauts to keep their hands free.
It can also be used as a mobile camera to save astronaut crew time and perform routine tasks, such as documenting experiments, searching for objects and taking inventory.
Twelve internal rotors allow it to move and rotate freely in all directions, so that it can turn towards the astronaut when addressed, nod and shake its head, and follow the astronaut – either autonomously or on command.
And CIMON-2 has cameras and ultrasound sensors to allow it to navigate without bumping into things. It even has a loudspeaker that allows it to speak and play music.
“CIMON-2 is expected to remain on the ISS and support the crew for up to three years,” said Till Eisenberg, CIMON Project Manager at Airbus.
“CIMON-2’s microphones are more sensitive, and it has a more advanced sense of direction. Its AI capabilities and the stability of its complex software applications have also been significantly improved.”
The hope is that robot companions could one day be deployed to assist crews on lengthy journeys as well as providing assistance in remote regions on Earth.
“When travelling to the Moon or Mars, the crew would then be able to rely on an AI-based assistance service, even without a permanent data link to Earth,” said collaborator Christian Karrasch, the project manager for DLR Space Administration, which implements Germany’s space programme.
“One application back on Earth could be to support people with complex tasks in areas with poor infrastructure, for example.”