Video shows ‘Alexa in space’ aboard the International Space Station

Back in June an artificial intelligence (A.I.) robot called CIMON was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) to act as a voice-powered assistant to the astronauts there. Now the European Space Agency has released a video showing CIMON interacting with the ISS crew for the first time.

CIMON, which stands for Crew Interactive MObile companioN, was sent to the ISS to test out whether a robot equipped with artificial intelligence can help improve crew efficiency and morale — two big problems when a small crew is on a long mission that may include many repetitive tasks. CIMON is a 3D printed plastic sphere about the size of a volleyball and has a screen which displays a rough outline of facial features and text. He was developed and built by Airbus in Germany, and thanks to the lack of gravity, CIMON’s 11 lb. mass floats happily around the ISS.

Interactions between CIMON and the crew are still a little awkward. Basic tasks like asking CIMON to play a song or getting CIMON to show the required equipment and procedure for on-board tasks work well, but more in-depth naturalistic conversations are beyond CIMON right now. Sometimes the bot will respond with: “Sorry, I am just a robot. I don’t know everything you mention,” sounding a lot like the ever so common and frustrating phrase from Alexa: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”

Things in the video get a little bit HAL 9000-esque when CIMON refuses to get out of music mode and reprimands astronaut Alexander Gerst to “Be nice, please,” and creepily asks, “Don’t you like it here with me?” CIMON even tells Gerst off, telling him, “Don’t be so mean, please.” There are clearly some bugs to be worked out in the communications between man and machine before CIMON is ready to act as a full-fledged assistant aboard the space station.

Eventually, CIMON should be able to help with a host of tasks on board the ISS like taking photos and videos, documenting experiments, locating lost objects, and maintaining an inventory. The ESA says that CIMON’s developers are happy with this initial use of the technology, and they hope to develop further collaborations between astronauts and robotic assistants in the future.

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