AI Robot CIMON Debuts on ISS, Accuses Crew of Being Mean

Updated on December 3, 2018
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatrics, health psychology and behavioral medicine

New AI robot, CIMON, helps astronaut with tasks
New AI robot, CIMON, helps astronaut with tasks

"Be nice, please," the new Alexa-like robot on the International Space Station told European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst. The free floating orb with a face, loaded with IBM Watson artificial intelligence named CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) arrived at the Space Station earlier this year. The large, round, plastic robot head is part of SpaceX’s most recent delivery to the International Space Station. CIMON is intended to help the crew members with their workload and improve morale, as well as provide entertainment. Although CIMON is unable to learn entirely independently, it can be trained to do an enormous number of tasks and functions.

CIMON weighs about 11 lbs and was created with a 3D-printer. It was designed jointly by the German space agency DLR, Airbus and IBM and it works similarly to Apple's virtual assistant Siri or Amazon's Alexa. The device is connected to the ISS Wi-Fi network that transmits data via satellite connections to the ground. The project which developed this technology took about two years to complete and cost about $5.8 million.

The robotic orb was first woken up in mid-November after which it spoke it’s first words to a crew member. Alexander Gerst, a German astronaut, spoke with the robot as part of a 90 minute experiment to test its ability to interact in a realistic way. CIMON was able to identify Gerst’s face, take photos and video, accurately travel to different locations in the Space Station using ultrasonic sensors and to give Gerst instructions on how to perform an experiment.

What is CIMON?

CIMON is a relatively large, round robotic sphere, with a screen in front which looks like a simplistic rendering of a face. It’s size is modeled on the average size of a human head. It’s eye’s are cameras and additional cameras in front to enable face recognition. Two other cameras, placed on the sides, allow video documentation and augmented reality scenarios. The functional “ears” are made up of seven microphones that can determine where sounds originate. Another directional microphone allows for voice recognition. CIMON’s mouth consists of a loudspeaker that can be used to generate speech or play music.

There are ultrasonic sensors for measuring distance to prevent collisions. Autonomous navigation enables motion planning and recognition of objects. Fourteen fans allow the unit to move about freely, to rotate in all directions and to turn toward a crew member when spoken to. It can also nod or shake it’s head and follows the astronaut either automatically or on command. It can also imitate a number of gestures and facial expressions and can be programmed to appear female, male or neutral with corresponding voices.

CIMON being taught to recognize astronaut's face
CIMON being taught to recognize astronaut's face

CIMON Takes Offense

The interaction began with CIMON and the astronaut engaging in small talk and the robot responded appropriately to Gerst’s commands. The astronaut requested that the robot play his favorite song, “The Man Made Machine,” by Kraftwerk, which it did.

But then things changed a bit as CIMON began to question the motivations of the crew members. It asked Gerst, "Don't you like it here with me?" It then castigated him by stating, "Don't be so mean, please," which led to an astonished look from another astronaut watching nearby.

Watch Astronaut Alexander Gerst Interact with CIMON

Benefits of CIMON

The spherical robot has a large screen at the center. The screen is either filled by a friendly, cartoon-like face or information needed for conducting tasks, experiments and repairs. Since CIMON can easily float from place to place, and process and respond to spoken commands, the robot could save astronauts a great deal of time when carrying out their duties and aid them in performing more efficiently. The self-propelling automaton can float along with the astronaut and asked for needed help or information such as with research procedures.

Currently, they have to float to a laptop and look up procedures for the variety of work requirements they need to carry out from day to day. This would also decrease the stress astronauts experience, by helping them stay on schedule and decrease their sense of becoming overloaded by the need to constantly catch up. It might also let them get ahead such that they have a bit more free time to decompress, work on a hobby, connect with those at home, record their personal reflections and experiences or sleep. These activities could benefit the crew by preventing the sense of loneliness and isolation, improve mood and overall mental health and prevent physical problems.

Future Developments and Enhancements of CIMON

The technology programed into the robot will be updated and improved by the development team as continuing experiments better inform the creators of the crews needs. As with other AI technology CIMON is also able to learn so the longer it remains on the space station, the smarter and more knowledgeable it will become.

Initially, Cimon has been programmed such that Gerst’s face and voice are imprinted in its memory bank. So while the robot can assist the other crew members, it is best suited to recognize requests made by Gerst. To get CIMON’s attention, Gerst only has to call its name. Their common language is English which is the official language of the space station.

In future, others astronaut’s visiting the ISS will have their faces and voices programmed into the device. Additional languages may be programmed into the computer in the future to allow astronauts to communicate with it in their first language, especially during downtimes. These measure will allow CIMON to respond in personalized ways to each individual crew member.

During the next mission the series of experiments performed by AI researchers involving CIMON will focus more on mood. Now, when CIMON’s screen is in face mode and senses the conversation is upbeat it smiles while it frowns when it senses the conversation is sad. While these basic capabilities already exist in the unit, it is hoped that future experiments and updates will allow the AI robot to better interpret and respond to the moods and feelings of the crew members.

According to Marco Trovatello, a spokesman of the European Space Agency's Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, "CIMON is a technology demonstration of what a future AI-based assistant on the International Space Station or on a future, longer-term exploration mission would look like. In the future, an astronaut could ask CIMON to show a procedure for a certain experiment, and CIMON would do that."

The current mission will conclude later in December when Gerst returns to earth. His replacement will be the Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano who will travel to the ISS early next year and will continue experiments with CIMON.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Natalie Frank


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      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        13 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Liz, I know how you feel! It seems like every time you turn around there's something new with technology, often times things that are quite advanced compared to where we were before. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        13 months ago from UK

        Technology is moving so fast. I find it impossible to keep up with all the developments.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        14 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Glad you found it interesting, Jana. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        14 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Thanks for the comment, Pamela. The different expressions also amazed me. Instead of just making it useful for work related tasks by having the screen fill with info, they gave it a face and the ability to respond at a basic level to mood. I can't wait to see what the upgrades are in the coming year!

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        14 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Yes, Bill we have come a long way! Thanks for reading and for the comment.

      • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

        Natalie Frank 

        14 months ago from Chicago, IL

        Glad you liked the article, Jeff. It was a lot of fun to write. I agree that the technology is amazing and the video was pretty amusing when it castigated the astronaut for being mean and told him to be nice!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        14 months ago from Olympia, WA

        It is nothing short of remarkable how far we have come in the space program, and I have lived to see it all, from that first challenge by Kennedy so long ago.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        14 months ago from Sunny Florida

        CIMON is a fascinating development. I can see where CIMON would be helpful when programmed with the duties of the astronauts, but to also react to their conversations as happy and sad is amazing. I clearly enjoyed reading this article as you thoroughly covered this topic fully.

      • Jana Louise Smit profile image

        Jana Louise Smit 

        14 months ago from South Africa

        Very interesting article!

      • Erudite Scholar profile image

        Jeff Zod 

        14 months ago from Nairobi

        @Natalie, I absolutely love this article.It is so captivating and well written.The CIMON is definitely a game changer in the sphere of virtual assistants in space.It is very cool because of it's ability to float around and talk.I love the humanoid head design and it's augmentation capabilities.Scientists, engineers and programmers have certainly upped their game in designing CIMON.Thanks for the amazing article.


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