In the immortal words sung by Elton John, “It’s lonely out in space.” But for astronauts on the International Space Station, the journey might be a little less lonely — and maybe a little more productive — thanks to Watson AI on the IBM Cloud and CIMON, the first free-flying AI assistant in space.
CIMON (short for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN) is the result of a partnership between the German space agency DLR, Airbus, and IBM. Matthias Biniok, the IBM project lead for CIMON, was first approached for the project in 2016. “Airbus proposed this idea they had to the German space agency: they wanted to build a robot and send it into space. When DLR commissioned them to build it, Airbus approached IBM about handling the AI components.”
The result was a roughly spherical, 11-pound robot that can converse with astronauts on the ISS. Facial-recognition software lets CIMON know who it’s talking to, and a deliberately simple visual design allows CIMON to show basic facial expressions. The astronaut bot can travel around the European Columbus Research Module of the ISS independently and has proven to be a handy assistant.
How Watson Assistant translates to space
“The idea was to create an actual astronaut assistant, so the astronauts could do their work more efficiently,” says Biniok. “A secondary goal was to have kind of a companion in space that they could talk to. That was the original idea, but in the course of things, the project focused in more on getting the experiments done with greater efficiency.”
One way CIMON helps with that is by functioning as a floating brain. The predominant AI technology used by CIMON is IBM Watson Assistant, already in use by IBM clients worldwide. Watson Assistant helps customer service representatives surface relevant and accurate information quickly so questions can be answered faster.
“Imagine you’re an astronaut in space, and you’re at your station working on an experiment,” explains Biniok. “Your hands are busy, and you have a question about the project you’re working on. Normally, you would have to float over to your laptop to get the answer, then back to the experiment station. With CIMON, you can just say, ‘CIMON, what’s the next step?’ and you don’t have to interrupt your workflow.
“Another way CIMON provides assistance is in helping to document the experiments as they’re being done. Astronauts need to record and film everything that they do. With CIMON, they can just tell him, ‘CIMON, come here. Turn your camera 30 degrees to the right and record…’”
Biniok proudly notes that all of the Watson services used in CIMON come from the IBM Cloud in Frankfurt. “That tells you how powerful our cloud is. If you can make it work in space, you can make it work anywhere.”
CIMON is a registered trademark in the European Union of Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e. V., German Aerospace Center (DLR) and stands for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN. It is a scientific project awarded by DLR, developed by AIRBUS and IBM, and funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi).
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