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The ISS Is Getting A Robot Head That Floats Around Smiling At Astronauts

In space, no one can hear your HR complaint.

The ISS Is Getting A Robot Head That Floats Around Smiling At Astronauts
[Source Images: Airbus (photo), FC (animation)]

Since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’ve always thought that a robotic companion in space would look like some sociopathic mainframe, with a glowing red eye that seemed to burn with a matter-of-fact contempt. But which is creepier in the frozen vacuum of space: a sadistic robot that locks you out, or a robot that likes hugs way too much and locks you in?

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Because CIMON looks like the latter. Designed in a collaboration between Airbus and IBM, CIMON is a robotic assistant meant to assist astronauts as part of an ISS mission later this year. Its brains are powered by Watson, and with a built-in camera, it can recognize its fellow crew members. CIMON will assist in experiments with crystals, and–this isn’t a joke–solving a giant Rubik’s cube. Over time, CIMON will learn to become a more useful crew member, making it easier for astronauts to complete routine tasks and serving as an early warning signal for problems. Long-term, Airbus imagines CIMON could actually study the crew social dynamics during trips into deep space.

Apparently the astronaut Alexander Gerst “had a say” in CIMON’s face, “so that he, too, could ‘make friends’ with his electronic colleague,” according to the press release. The two will be close collaborators.

[Photo: Airbus]
CIMON’s personality, though. He seems so much creepier than any personal assistant need be. I know, I know. He’s smiling. He’s round. He must be nice! But there’s nice nice, and there’s . . . the other nice. For every nice colleague who brings you that candy bar you like because they spot it on sale at the Whole Foods during their lunch break, there’s the “nice” colleague who gives you an unsolicited shoulder massage because you’re looking tense. For every nice colleague who loans you $20 for lunch because you forgot your wallet at home, there’s a “nice” colleague who picks up a poke bowl for two but insists there’s only one fork in the entire office–it’s ok, they’ll share!

To be fair, just the act of designing an artificial face is hard, let alone an entire artificial personality. Starbucks learned that the hard way when its new Siren logo was so perfectly beautiful that she was perceived as creepy. A few pixels of asymmetry was all she needed to go from eerie to angel. CIMON, somehow, feels simultaneously too anthropomorphic, and not anthropomorphic enough, like some sorcerer tried to give Susan Kare’s smiling Mac icon a soul.

Perhaps I’m being mean to CIMON. I know, I’m being very mean to CIMON. But personalities are a real challenge for AI assistants. IBM’s Jeopardy-solving Watson has proven to be a tough sell already to businesses, in part because the technology can’t live up to its own advertising, and in part, because Watson himself is just a bad wrapper for AI, constantly forced to make circusy media cameos. Now, Airbus is wrapping Watson in yet another personality, and in doing so, creating a multi-personality situation out of Split.

Then again, it’s a lot better than making CIMON another subservient female by default, like Siri, Cortana, and Google Now.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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