CIMON is an artificial intelligence-equipped spherical robot developed by the German space agency to assist and accompany astronauts during long missions. And just like HAL 9000, the iconic fictional AI program that served long-haul astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey, CIMON has a bit of attitude problem.
A video posted by the European Space Agency on November 30 shows CIMON’s first real-world assessment aboard the International Space Station. Everything was going well, as Expedition 56/57 astronaut Alexander Gerst tested its conversational skills, mission troubleshooting ability, and autonomous navigation features. But things got a little weird when Gerst asked CIMON, short for 'Crew Interactive MObile companioN', to play his favorite song (around the 3.06 mark below), which is, apparenlty quite fittingly, Man Machine by German band Kraftwerk.
The fun starts around the 3.06 mark if you're just here for the giggles.
When Gerst is trying to figure out why the robot won’t exit music mode and why it keeps drifting down from eye level, the device responds defensively, saying "Be nice, please." It then asks "Don't you like it here with me?", before requesting "Don't be so mean, please."
“He’s a bit sensitive today,” Gerst jokes to fellow astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, who can be seen laughing in the background.
Clearly, the robot’s personality software still needs tweaking, especially if it is going to have the emotional fortitude to withstand the stressors of actual space missions.
Roughly the size of a medicine ball, CIMON is essentially the super high-tech version of an Amazon Alexa or Google Home, except instead of creating music playlists, looking up movie showtimes, and telling you the weather report, it is capable of presenting and explaining information and instructions related to a spacecraft’s onboard systems, science projects, and repair protocols. And create music playlists.
To accomplish all this, CIMON features a display screen, five cameras, seven microphones, and 14 internal fans – which allow the unit to navigate in all directions in zero gravity – encased in a 3D-printed plastic shell. It uses the IBM Watson AI platform for speech comprehension, and Airbus technology for motion planning and object recognition.
Ultrasonic sensors spread across its surface measure the distance to other objects to prevent collision. Each of the microphones act as ‘ears’ that detect where sound is coming from, and can recognize different human voices. A loudspeaker ‘mouth’ allows it to talk back.
"CIMON is globally unique in this form," Christian Karrasch, CIMON Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration, said in a statement earlier this year. "It is intended to show to what extent the astronauts' work can be supported in the European Columbus module on the ISS and relieve them, in particular, of routine tasks. Ideally, the astronauts could use their time better and more effectively."
Once CIMON’s functional tests are complete, it will work with Gerst on three tasks meant to test its onboard equipment and problem-solving capabilities. Insights gained from these experiments will help developers improve the robot to get it ready for real use.
[H/T: Science Alert]