IBM Is Sending a Floating Robot Head to Space

ibm watson ai space ISS CIMON
The CIMON robot head will help improve safety aboard the ISS and reduce the stress of astronauts Airbus

Imagined scenarios of what might happen if an advanced artificial intelligence is introduced to a spacecraft do not always end well. In the seminal science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, a rogue AI named Hal kills most of the crew and defies orders from another member with the foreboding line: "I'm sorry Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

But this hasn't deterred Airbus and IBM from teaming up to develop CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN), a floating robot the size of a medicine ball that is equipped with Watson AI technology.

Later this year, CIMON is set to become the first "flying brain" in space when it is deployed to the International Space Station (ISS) to work alongside astronauts.

ibm watson space robot AI
Airbus describes the CIMON robot as the first “flying brain” in space. IBM

CIMON will use its neural AI network, combined with its face and voice recognition technology, to assist astronauts during the European Space Agency's Horizons mission between June and October 2018.

The idea is that the floating robot head will not only improve the efficiency of astronauts but also reduce their stress. By acting as an early warning system in the event of technical problems, the developers hope that CIMON will also enhance safety aboard the ISS.

"CIMON's digital face, voice and use of artificial intelligence make it a 'colleague' to the crew members," Matthias Biniok, IBM's lead Watson architect, explained in a blogpost. "This collegial 'working relationship' facilitates how astronauts work through their prescribed checklists of experiments, now entering into a genuine dialogue with their interactive assistant."

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The CIMON robot will not be the first robot to travel aboard the ISS, with several other android astronauts making the trip into orbit 250 miles above the Earth. In 2011, NASA sent up Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed to perform simple tasks aboard the space station like cleaning handrails.

Several recurring issues with Robonaut means it has been largely out of action since 2015 and astronauts have packaged the robot up in order to return it to Earth for repairs. Another robot that has since returned to Earth is Kirobo, which assisted Japanese astronaut Wakata Koichi aboard the ISS until 2015.

robot baby kirobo mini toyota
Toyota's Kirobo robot has returned to Earth to act as a "cuddlesome" companion for humans. Toyota

What makes CIMON stand out from previous robotic endeavours, its developers point out, is its advanced artificial intelligence capabilities that have not been implemented in robot form aboard the ISS before.

"In short, CIMON will be the first AI-based mission and flight assistance system," said Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads at Airbus.

"We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station."