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How IBM and Airbus designed a floating robot head for the ISS

His name is CIMON, and he blasted off to the ISS early on June 29.

How IBM and Airbus designed a floating robot head for the ISS
[Photo: courtesy Airbus]

In wee hours of Friday morning, SpaceX launched its latest rocket into space, destined for the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 rocket is carrying some very unique cargo: a head-shaped robot designed to assist one of the astronauts with his experiments. Think of it as Alexa, but for space.

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The robot is called the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, or CIMON for short, and it will act as an assistant to German astronaut Alexander Gerst as he carries out scientific research aboard the ISS. But CIMON, a collaboration between Airbus and IBM, is also an experiment for its makers–a test of whether a robot like CIMON will work at all, so far from the server powering its AI back on Earth, and whether its expressive interface will be effective when it comes to communication between machines and people.

[Image: courtesy Airbus]

CIMON presented several unique design challenges. For starters, how exactly does one design a robot assistant when most of us associate the words “space robot” with Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey? CIMON isn’t built into the walls of the ISS, of course, and he doesn’t control the station. Instead, the designers and engineers at Airbus and IBM opted for a form factor that they believed wouldn’t be threatening: a floating head with a friendly, neutral face. And while CIMON is a bit creepy to look at, as Co.Design pointed out back when the bot was unveiled, there are a few reasons for putting a human face on the computer.

“The ball itself is wide and circular for aesthetic reasons, because you won’t be as afraid as if a cube were to fly up to you,” says Philipp Schulien, the lead systems engineer from Airbus who worked on the project. “The display itself has the exact size of a human face so it’s more natural to speak to CIMON.” That’s right–the basketball-sized AI and its face were designed to connect people, not unsettle them, and its rounded edges make the robot less likely to damage a person or piece of equipment if it accidentally runs into them.

[Photo: courtesy IBM]

The decision to make CIMON a ball led to an engineering challenge: Most components have sharp edges and don’t fit neatly into a spherical shape. After all, there’s a reason that vast majority of electronics are packed into rectangular boxes. To solve the issue, Schulien and his team used a 3D printer to create CIMON’s form around the electronics. The robot is also equipped with 14 fans that propel him around the interior of the European module on the ISS; like a pet dog, he’ll come when he’s called, using an internal navigation system that relies on visual markers within the module to determine the robot’s exact location.

CIMON’s main job is to help German astronaut Alexander Gerst save time while performing experiments. Right now, Gerst and his colleagues have to float back and forth between a laptop that has the experiment’s exact procedure and the lab where they’re conducting it. The idea is that the floating head can hang out with Gerst and he can ask it questions about the next step in the experiment and what tool he needs, saving him from floating to and fro. It also is equipped with three cameras that can record the experiment, eliminating the need for either another astronaut to document it or the installation of video cameras in the lab.

IBM Watson architect Matthias Biniok trained the robot’s internal AI systems on information about Gerst’s experiments, as well as external sources like Wikipedia. It can also play music, games, make small talk, and even act empathetic if an astronaut is homesick, but Biniok says that Gerst was far less interested in this fluff and really just wanted CIMON to help him be more efficient. The IBM team also had to factor in the extreme amount of noise in the ISS–they used sound clips sent by the German Space Agency to train the machine learning algorithms to recognize Gerst’s voice amid the din.

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[Image: courtesy IBM]

But as Biniok admitted, the tech that’s powering CIMON’s brain isn’t particularly groundbreaking: It’s just the Watson assistant, trained on some space-related documents. The real breakthrough, he says, is that CIMON’s brain is using the Watson Cloud based in the company’s Frankfurt servers–which means for every question Gerst asks, the query has to travel from the ISS to an external satellite, down to a ground station, over to Germany, and all the way back again. During the first prototypes of the system, this took eight seconds. But through a mix of pre-caching and data connection optimization, the team was able to cut the latency to two seconds (and are filing for a patent, so Biniok wouldn’t get more specific on how it works).

The most important design decision may be the fact that CIMON has a face at all. Biniok says that Gerst was less interested in the robot’s emotional capacity than its ability to help him get things done faster, but the astronaut had a direct say in what kind of face he wanted: He chose one that was more abstract yet was more realistic than a simple smiley.  It may be designed for work, but CIMON’s emotional intelligence could prove more important in the future. Airbus hopes that CIMON will work well enough to send on future interplanetary missions, where it could theoretically act as a confidant for astronauts.

For now, CIMON’s efficacy will be measured in whether he can shave minutes off the time it takes to run experiments, not on the strength of his emotive listening skills. Perhaps one day, his sensitive responses and empathetic eyebrows will help a crew traveling to Mars stay sane on the journey, maintaining their humanity with help from a machine.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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