Aboard the latest shipment to the International Space Centre is a true vision of the future: a floating, microgravity-adapting, cartoon-faced, artificial intelligence robot. Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, or Cimon as he is more familiarly known, was blasted into space this morning aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Once he arrives at the ISS, Cimon will be on a mission to uncover whether AI and astronauts can work together in space.
Cimon weighs 5 kilograms, and will float around the aircraft thanks to 14 internal fans which take in the air and repel him to change direction. He’s fitted with ultrasonic sensors to prevent him from bumping into machinery in the aircraft, and to keep track of his own movements. The robot’s eyes are cameras, his ears microphones and his mouth a speaker, which is equipped with all the colloquialisms astronauts are used to hearing.
Airbus and IBM claim joint parentage of the space-bound AI. With funding from DLR, the two companies built the robot with the idea that he would assist astronauts whilst providing them with companionship. Cimon will float over when his name is called, and can respond to questions and nod in agreement. He’s even been given a personality by engineers – the ISTJ Myers-Briggs type, which takes pleasure in making everything orderly and values loyalty.
Once Cimon arrives, he will begin a series of 3 tasks to assess how well he can perform routine work with astronauts. Cimon will be paired with Space Station commander Alexander Gerst, who will be his human companion and space buddy. Together, Gerst and Cimon will complete an experiment on crystal growth in microgravity, try to solve a Rubik’s cube, and perform a complex medical experiment using Cimon’s mobile camera capabilities.
While Cimon is supposed to act as a floating bastion of support, many are concerned that his constant presence may put pressure on astronauts. Airbus lists one of Cimon’s primary missions as “examin[ing] group effects that can develop over a long period of time in small teams and that may arise during long-term missions to the Moon or Mars”. As a result, any time Cimon is active, he is recording. Despite engineers equipping him with the ability to sense when someone doesn’t want to be talked to, and to leave them alone as a result, Cimon is still a tool for monitoring. This may deter astronauts from taking advantage of the empathetic emotional features Cimon is equipped with.
Astronauts will certainly be relieved by the presence of the AI’s ‘offline’ switch. Once he arrives, all eyes will be on Cimon to demonstrate the extent to which humans and AI can interact, and to lead the way for further AI-human research.