Late in June, a SpaceX Dragon rocket took off for the International Space Station. It’s cargo? A small, spherical robot equipped with artificial intelligence. If it seems like something out of a science fiction it’s for good reason. No other AI robot has ever been launched into space, making it the perfect plot inspiration for a film.
The purpose of the robot is to assist astronauts on the International Space Station with any number of tasks. The little sphere is named “CIMON,” with stands for “Crew Interactive Mobile Companion.” NASA views CIMON as a major stepping stone in the exploration of space. Artificial Intelligence will be critical as we send humans further and further away from Earth in the coming years. The lessons learned from CIMON will likely influence larger, future projects.
CIMON’s artificial intelligence is the Watson System, made famous by IBM. Airbus, the German aerospace company, actually developed the robot. It’s spherical in shape and weighs in at about 11 pounds. The robot is equipped with facial recognition technology, which allows it to carry on personal conversations with astronauts and know exactly who it’s speaking to. As for CIMON’s face, it’s currently limited to a simple cartoon version. On board the International Space Station, the robot can scoot around on its own by using integrated air jets, making it an extremely mobile tool for the astronauts.
Anyone on board the ISS can work with CIMON, but it will be European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst who will be doing the most work with the robot. Several experiments are on the schedule for Gerst and CIMON, from working with Crystals to medical experiments.
The idea of artificial “droids” or robots flying spacecraft or treating sick crewmembers has, thus far, only been the thing of Hollywood films and fiction. However, CIMON’s mission is likely the first step in getting our operations in space to that kind of level. While CIMON won’t be doing any major operations on the International Space Station, there’s a good chance that future AI entities will take on greater responsibilities.