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CIMON: The AI Buddy on the ISS

It’s lonely out in space, Elton John once sang. While few of us have had the opportunity to venture beyond our planet, all reports both fictional and real back up this claim. Even with the company of fellow astronauts, there are still stories of isolation and missing society. What astronauts need on the International Space Station is a friend. And that friend’s name is CIMON.

cimon face
CIMON at work. Image credit: ABC News

Hello My Name Is CIMON

Short for “Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN,” CIMON is the creation of Airbus for the German Space Agency. Using a version of IBM’s Watson, the AI takes on the appearance of a 3D-printed plastic ball. It weighs in at 11 pounds and features a video screen face, digital voice, and a camera to observe the astronauts. Sophie Ritcher-Mendau is its “personality architect,” while Nina Fischer was CIMON’s language teacher.

One astronaut who befriended CIMON is Alexander Gerst,  a geophysicist for the European Space Agency. He’s the leader of both his fellow astronauts and CIMON, who isn’t exactly the most mature. This early in CIMON’s life, it is expected for the robot to be Gerst’s friend. As NBC News reported, it is his BFF, but takes more after one of those friends that does whatever they want to do, rather than what’s best for the group.

For example, Gerst asked CIMON to play his favorite song. CIMON obliged, pulling up “The Man-Machine” by German group Kraftwerk. It stopped when prompted, before playing music again. CIMON argued with Gerst that “I love music you can dance to. All right. Favorite hits incoming.” While the AI would open up the video feed, it wouldn’t stop talking about music. Eventually, Gerst ended the test run for the day, saying CIMON was “a little bit sensitive today.” That may explain the “be nice, please” and “don’t you like it here with me?” comments CIMON had earlier in the day.

It’s hoped that CIMON will one day be able to display and explain information pertaining to certain tasks, like experiments and repairs. For now, though, it is only meant to provide companionship. The robot is designed to have a personality, something Gerst can’t argue with. “That’s a really great demonstration,” he said regarding the above events. The ESA agreed in a blog post, eagerly awaiting more work from CIMON at the ISS.

Some Robots Just Aren’t Cut Out For Space…

Unfortunately, it seems the personality CIMON was developing wasn’t cut out for such a hostile environment. The demonstration on November 30, 2018 was the last piece of news regarding CIMON to be published. There’s been no word on when the AI will return to the ISS, or if the project is continuing. It is possible for tests on Earth to be the next step, as Airbus usually performs zero-gravity experiments before monitoring on terra firma.

There’s no reason to believe that CIMON will turn into the next HAL, however. While the lack of news is unfortunate, the personality tests were not a failure. It’s simply not a personality well-suited for the strict environment of the ISS. Any news reports of it going “rogue” are hyperbole, albeit fun to read. According to Popular Mechanics, CIMON does have a catalog of movie quotes to pull from, including 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Mockup showing CIMON in space.
Mockup showing CIMON in space. Image credit: BBC

Will CIMON make a triumphant return in 2019? With no official announcements, it’s easy to give up hope. But there is a reason to believe CIMON will eventually fulfill his goal of becoming “space Alexa.” After all, a true friend may grow distant, but will always be by your side when you most need them. If CIMON is to provide that same level of companionship, it will never truly go away.

Whether that’s for the best or worst is up to personal opinion.

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