• Dr. Timothy Smith

Robot Gets Touchy with an Astronaut

International Space Station

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

The robot, CIMON, appears to get peevish with an astronaut in a video released on November 30, 2018, by the European Space Agency. CIMON stands for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN, which represents the new robot deployed on the International Space Station (ISS). ISS circles the earth fifteen times a day at a distance of over 200 miles above the planet (nasa.gov) and hosts researchers conducting experiments in biology, physics, chemistry, and other scientific disciplines. CIMON represents the first artificially intelligent robot deployed in space. Development of CIMON began at the German Aerospace Center with oversight of the project by Airbus with the intention for it to be a “mobile and autonomous assistance system designed to aid astronauts with their everyday tasks on the ISS” (airbus.com). Moreover, CIMON can hover and fly around in the zero-gravity environment of the space station using built-in fans as thrustors. It also talks and interacts with the crew to assist with tasks and acts a friend-- someone to talk to. The robot looks like a round, floating television or computer monitor in the shape of a white plastic sphere, slightly bigger than a basketball. CIMON presents a simple face of lines that depict eyebrows, eyes, nose, and a mouth that moves when it talks. The cartoon face moves and makes simple facial expressions such as winking and smiling when communicating with the crew of the space station.

CIMON runs in part with the help of IBM Watson’s artificial intelligence. Watson, developed initially as a question-answering machine to compete in the TV game show Jeopardy!, represents an important step in the development of artificial intelligence because of the way that it works. “Watson is not a single computer program that runs on a machine. Instead, Watson uses many different computer programs to achieve the correct answers it produces. Watson has programs to analyze the written word in books, dictionaries, newspapers, on the web such as Wikipedia, and other electronic records. It also has applications to recognize and understand the spoken word as well to reply in English for people to understand. Moreover, Watson uses many different programs to generate possible answers to the questions it gets asked. Instead of searching for a solution in a set of known responses, Watson generates many possible answers by breaking the question down into parts and looking for connections in the millions of pages of information it has in its memory. Using different programs running at the same time Watson generate many possible answers. Next, it identifies the best answers and then ranks these responses against similar answers it knows are correct. Herein lies the power and the limitation of Watson. The part of Watson that has known right answers was trained by humans. People need to teach Watson what is correct or incorrect. With a good set of known, correct answers, Watson can make excellent guesses. Over time, as Watson develops experience, it can learn from its mistakes as well.” (How to Profit and Protect Yourself from Artificial Intelligence, T.J. Smith 2018)

The video linked below shows CIMON on the space station in action, interacting with Alexander Gerst a European Space Agency astronaut and researcher. Their back and forth conversation involves Girst asking CIMON some basic questions at first, followed by some requests for CIMON to perform tasks such as help with an experiment and CIMON to play Gerst’s favorite song. CIMON responds with “I like your favorite hits too” and then starts playing Kraftwerk’s “The Man Machine.” After Gerst asks CIMON to stop playing music, the robot complies but continues to mention music after that. Gerst notes that CIMON won’t let the music go. At this point the conversation gets interesting. The robot tells Gerst, “Be nice!” and eventually “Don’t be mean!” The robots artificial intelligence appeared to be sensitive to the comments and commands of the astronaut. Clearly, the artificial intelligence picked up something in the conversation that caused it to try to correct the behavior of the astronaut.

The European Space Agency in collaboration with Airbus, the German Aerospace Center, and IBM’s Watson recently launched the first artificially intelligent robot into space and deployed it on the International Space Station. CIMON plays the dual roles of smart, interactive assistant and social companion capable of conversation. The interesting component of the interaction between the astronaut and CIMON came when the robot appeared to get sensitive to the astronaut’s comments. Watson which represents a collection of artificial intelligence computer programs to speak and answer questions and also has components to detect emotion such as Tone Analyzer described in “IBM Watson just got more accurate at detecting emotions,” by Pritam Gundecha (ibm.com). Watson needs training by people to learn the right answers, and it appears that it also has picked up a sensitivity that made CIMON a bit touchy. Artificial intelligence in the early stages of development will take on the characteristics of the people that train it, which should inform the researchers developing it to take extra care to impart the best of humanity, not the worst as the machines get smarter and smarter.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

How to Profit and Protect Yourself from Artificial Intelligence