A floating orb is expected to be the first AI assistant to help humans in space.
Let's get the low-hanging fruit out of the way: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
Developed by Airbus in partnership with IBM, the Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN (CIMON, for short) weighs eleven pounds and will act as a kind of floating brain to assist astronauts during mundane mission duties.
Roughly the size of a basketball, the 3D-printed plastic and metal orb weighs 11-pounds on earth and runs a modified version of IBM's Watson.
Astronaut Alexander Gerst has been designated to test the device. During mission tasks aboard the ISS, Gerst will view procedures on CIMON's screen.
As the astronaut advances through the steps of the tasks, CIMON will track his progress and make suggestions on how best to proceed.
Like tabletop assistants, CIMON recognizes speech, has a synthetic voice, and is capable of some interaction. It's been trained to identify Gerst via facial and speech recognition.
By now we're used to that functionality here on earth, but in space the interactivity could have far greater relevance.
According to Airbus:
With CIMON, crew members can do more than just work through a schematic view of prescribed checklists and procedures; they can also engage with their assistant. In this way, CIMON makes work easier for the astronauts when carrying out every day routine tasks, helps to increase efficiency, facilitates mission success and improves security, as it can also serve as an early warning system for technical problems
Crucially, CIMON may also have a psychological impact during longterm small group confinement aboard the ISS. The experiment is being monitored closely by international space agencies.
So compelling was the idea that CIMON may become a companion to the astronauts that Airbus enlisted Gerst to weigh in on the selection of the face and voice.
The face, at least, reminds me a bit of Rethink Robotics' Baxter.
Gerst and CIMON are expected to work together a total of three times, including on a task that my personal tests have proven is impossible on earth: solving a Rubik's cube.