In what looks set to be a giant leap for digital assistants, Alexa will become the first technology of its kind to travel to space.
Amazon’s smart voice assistant will be heading beyond Earth early next year as part of NASA’s highly anticipated Artemis I mission that will pave the way for a crewed lunar landing before the end of the decade.
Amazon engineers have created an advanced version of Alexa that will be tested during Artemis I to see if the technology might be useful for subsequent crewed missions.
Banish from your mind any images of an Echo Dot crudely taped to a seat inside Orion. According to Amazon, Lockheed Martin designed custom, space-grade, Alexa-embedded hardware that’s robust enough to handle the intense shock and vibrations of launch as well as radiation exposure from passing through the Van Allen radiation belt on the way to the moon.
During Artemis I, an Orion spacecraft will perform a flyby of the moon before returning to Earth. The voyage will be uncrewed, so NASA will set up Alexa interactions remotely, with Mission Control personnel, students, and special guests able to ask the voice assistant questions during the spacecraft’s voyage.
Alexa will be hooked up to Orion’s real-time telemetry data and therefore be capable of answering thousands of questions related to the mission as it’s taking place.
As you might expect, Alexa will also be able to respond to requests to control connected devices aboard Orion, including in-cabin lighting.
Alexa is one of a number of innovative technologies that will be tested as part of Artemis I, with the exercise enabling mission planners to explore how ambient intelligence can assist astronauts on future voyages to the moon and beyond.
“I can imagine a future where astronauts can access information on flight status and telemetry — such as spacecraft orientation, water supply levels or battery voltage status, through simple voice commands,” said Howard Hu, deputy Orion program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Orion is already the most advanced spacecraft ever developed to carry astronauts to the moon, and voice activation technology could take it to the next level by enabling the interactive computer systems of science fiction spaceships to become a reality for the next generation of explorers.”
Alexa engineers also hope to use the mission to learn more about how they can improve the digital voice assistant for the many earthlings that already use it, with a particular focus on enhancing it for those in harsh or remote environments that have no connectivity.
“The Star Trek computer was part of our original inspiration for Alexa, so it’s exciting and humbling to see our vision for ambient intelligence come to life on board Orion,” said Aaron Rubenson, Vice President of Alexa Everywhere at Amazon.
Rubenson said: “We’re proud to be working with Lockheed Martin to push the limits of voice technology and A.I., and we hope Alexa’s role in the mission helps inspire future scientists, astronauts, and engineers who will define this next era of space exploration.”
With that in mind, Amazon is also launching an initiative called Alexa for Astronauts, offering students live virtual tours of the Johnson Space Center and featuring a STEM curriculum created in partnership with the National Science Teaching Association and Mobile CSP that’s designed to highlight computer science learning and the Artemis I mission.
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