- An 11-pound, artificially intelligent orb is launching to the International Space Station.
- The robot, called the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (CIMON), will have an animated face, talk, and fly around.
- CIMON will use IBM Watson software to interact with astronauts.
When German astronaut and scientist Alexander Gerst rockets to the International Space Station in June, he'll bring along an unusual friend: a flying, talking, intelligent robot.
Called the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, or CIMON, the orb-shaped device weighs about 11 pounds and displays an expressive digital face. Its "brain" is powered in part by IBM Watson — the artificial intelligence software that defeated Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in 2011 and won $1 million. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus helped develop the robot as well.
"In short, CIMON will be the first [artificial intelligence]-based mission and flight assistance system," Manfred Jaumann, a payload engineer at Airbus, said in a press release. He added that CIMON will be a "a free flyer, a kind of flying brain" that will interact with, aid, and learn from astronauts.
CIMON is a far cry from the HAL 9000 supercomputer from the classic sci-fi book and movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," and it isn't the only flying robot headed to the ISS. But CIMON's capabilities are nonetheless impressive.
Training a floating head to be a friend
The robot was created primarily by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which worked in collaboration with IBM, the European Space Agency, and other partners.
CIMON's team trained the robot on Earth to recognize Gerst's voice via microphones and his face using cameras. The machine follows him around using an air-propulsion system. (Its mobility will be tested during several parabolic flights inside an airplane in March, Airbus said.)
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The robot will have a stand-alone version of Watson AI in its memory banks. That means no internet connection — a tricky problem in space — will be required for CIMON to interpret data, respond to commands, solve problems, and generally be a useful little robot.
"It can also serve as an early warning system for technical problems," Airbus said.
Gerst will unbox CIMON in June and use the flying robot through October. During that time, it will help Gerst solve basic problems and check off tasks like a digital assistant. But CIMON's prime mission is to complete three goals: experiment with crystal growth in space, solve a Rubik's cube, and "perform a complex medical experiment using CIMON as an 'intelligent' flying camera," according to Airbus.
"Experiments sometimes consist of more than 100 different steps, CIMON knows them all," Matthias Biniok, the lead Watson architect in Germany, said in an IBM blog post.
CIMON will use a neural network to interact with and learn from Gerst, at least at first.
Ultimately, CIMON will spy on space station astronauts to help assess their emotional states and psychological "group effects," Biniok said — a feature that could help better engineer months- or years-long journeys to the moon or Mars.
"Social interaction between people and machines, between astronauts and assistance systems equipped with emotional intelligence, could play an important role in the success of long-term missions," Airbus said.
"We predict that assistance systems of this kind also have a bright future right here on earth, such as in hospitals or to support nursing care," Biniok said.
This story was originally published at 2:15 p.m. ET on Feb. 27, 2018, and updated with new information.