CIMON: AI Robot at International Space Station

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the major developments of our time. Machine learning and the implications that go with it are shaking up many aspects of how we do things, allowing us to deploy AI where we previously used a human or a more inefficient process.

Artificial intelligence applications have been used in a wide range of fields including medical diagnosis, stock trading, robot control, law, scientific discovery, and toys. However, many AI applications are not perceived as AI: “A lot of cutting-edge AI has filtered into general applications, often without being called AI because once something becomes useful enough and common enough it’s not labeled AI anymore.” “Many thousands of AI applications are deeply embedded in the infrastructure of every industry.” In the late 1990s and early 21st century, AI technology became widely used as elements of larger systems, but the field is rarely credited for these successes.

Artificial intelligence, defined as intelligence exhibited by machines, has many applications in today’s society. More specifically, it is Weak AI, the form of AI where programs are developed to perform specific tasks, that is being utilized for a wide range of activities including medical diagnosis, electronic trading platforms, robot control, and remote sensing. AI has been used to develop and advance numerous fields and industries, including finance, healthcare, education, transportation, and more.

CIMON: Cimon or officially CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile companion) is a head-shaped AI robot used in the International Space Station.

The device is “an AI-based assistant for astronauts” developed by Airbus and IBM, with funding from the German Aerospace Centre. The device is modeled after the character of Professor Simon Wright, “the flying brain,” from the anime series Captain Future. Cimon runs on Ubuntu.

The floating robot designed as a helpmeet for astronauts—scientifically, logistically, and emotionally. The bot’s full name is Crew Interactive Mobile Companion: Cimon. It looks like one of those spherical pool speakers if you replaced the speaker with a screen that displays a line-sketch face that talks back. This is no full-utility HAL: On this demonstration mission, Cimon is there to help the Station’s commander with three very simple tasks that test its utility. But longer-term, Cimon could also watch and interpret how crew members interact with each other, tracking the social dynamics that might escape the astronauts’ handlers on the ground.

Cimon is a joint project between the European aero company Airbus and IBM, funded by the German space agency DLR. And its developers hope astronauts will kind of enjoy working with the bot, that having a task-buddy will de-stress them. But it’s complicated—because work buddies aren’t (usually, hopefully) recording you.

Cimon doesn’t have a body, but it has cameras for eyes, microphones for ears, and a speaker for a mouth. Using fans as fins, and ultrasonic sensors for proprioception, it is free to move about the microgravity cabin. It can respond in human language to human questions and statements and learn from (recording, downlinking, and analyzing) interactions. Plus, engineers equipped it with a personality (ISTJ, they claim). With all that, Cimon’s parents hope it’ll make a good (spying) socializer.

INTERACTION with the AI Robot:

The space station robot CIMON has exchanged its first words with its spacefaring crew.

German astronaut Alexander Gerst talked with the artificially intelligent crew-assistant CIMON during a 90-minute experiment on Nov. 15 aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

According to a statement from the manufacturer, Airbus, Gerst, the commander of the current space station crew, woke up CIMON (the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) with the words “Wake up, CIMON.” In response, CIMON said, “What can I do for you?” [This Flying Space Droid Wants to Make Friends with Astronauts]

During the experiment, CIMON successfully found and recognized Gerst’s face, took photos and video, positioned itself autonomously within the Columbus module using its ultrasonic sensors, and issued instructions for Gerst to perform a student-designed experiment with crystals.

CIMON properly acknowledges Gerst’s commands to stop playing music and to start taking video with its front camera. But then it says, “Let’s sing along with those favorite hits.” When Gerst orders it again to stop playing music, CIMON, sounding somewhat petulant, replies: “I love music you can dance to. All right. Favorite hits incoming.”

Gerst tries again to stop CIMON from spinning records, to which it replies: “I understood do you like the music. I understand that.”


However, as with every relationship, teething problems are expected, and the bigger picture shows that CIMON holds the capability to be a valuable right-hand man for astronauts in the future. Along with general chit-chat and music playing capabilities, CIMON is designed to help human colleagues with day-to-day repair work, floating alongside them whilst providing step-by-step guides and verbal instructions. Its neural-AI system allows it to learn and fine-tune advice for future work.

At the sound of Gerst’s voice, CIMON whirls into life and responds by asking what he needs help with. The robot uses air rushing through vents at the back of his sphere to float in a zero-gravity environment – although Gerst noted that CIMON often rebelled in its movement, reverting back to its deck position on the floor – and can last autonomously for approximately two hours without a direct source of power.

At the moment, CIMON is programmed to exclusively react to Gerst’s commands. The German astronaut was involved in the development process, selecting the robot’s face and voice to best represent his idea of a ‘friend’. Such is the friendship, and CIMON’s talent, that the duo was able to solve a Rubik’s Cube together. Whilst this sounds like the opening of an intergalactic romantic comedy, advancing the CIMON’s technology through trivial activities could play a major factor in the mental health of future guests at the ISS.

Noor Ashique

Noor Ashique is a MSc student at St. Stephens College, University of Delhi.


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