What could go wrong? IBM send of real-life HAL robot to the International Space Station

(Credit: Gary Hershorn, Fox News)

A round, basketball-shaped autonomous assistant that is supposed to help the astronauts with their space. Sounds a lot like HAL-9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey, right?

CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) will not say, ” I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” but the first time flying, autonomous, artificial intelligence-based robot is planned at the head of the International Space Station (ISS) later this week. With a little luck, CIMON remains there for the foreseeable future.

“There is no plan that CIMON to come back,” the IBM Matthias Biniok told Fox News. Biniok, who led the development of Cimon the AI via IBM’s Watson, added that the intention for DECEMBER is to regularly check for updates through the cloud, “and make him a real crew mate on the ISS.”


(CIMON floating around. Credit: Airbus)

Despite the obvious similarity to HAL 9000 (HAL is a curious letter shift from IBM), the antagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s aforementioned masterpiece, CIMON was actually inspired by a cartoon character from the 1940’s and early 1950’s, “Captain Future,” the German-born Biniok said.

“CIMON is similar to Professor Simon [a character that is trained Captain Future] and that was the basis for CIMON, a TV show from years ago,” Biniok said.

In addition to the comic strip that ran from 1940 to 1951, Captain Future, little anime series in the late 1970’s.

Developed in cooperation with the European aerospace company, Airbus, CIMON’s role on the ISS, will the help of the German ESA astronaut and ISS Commander Alexander Barley on their tasks, perform scientific work, to help with the experiments and even act as a flying webcam, while keeping his data private and secure. Biniok added it can even act as an “early warning system” of sorts if there are technical problems in the future and make small talk during downtime.

“What we’re trying to do with Watson AI services is imitating a man,” Biniok said, adding that CIMON is a digital “mouth” and emotions. “CIMON has Watson the brain and understand what the man says. Know how to respond and what features to show. One of the reasons why Airbus selected IBM was we can go in depth and go into deep conversations, with the help of Watson.”

(CIMON with Matthias Biniok. Credit: IBM)

The 11-pound CIMON currently only speaks English, but the hope is in the future, through software updates, it may speak a different language. Clarissa, the spoken dialogue computer on the ISS, and is trained to understand English and Russian, the two most common languages spoken on the international space station.

At 240 miles above the surface of the Earth, the ISS is not exactly around the corner, so it is important that CIMON function properly. After a number of prototypes, IBM engineers were able to cut down on the latency response time of 8 seconds and 2 seconds, which CIMON to talk with the IBM cloud in Frankfurt, Germany in the same amount of time that 4,7 million e-mails will be sent on Earth, according to the New Scientist.


Biniok would not disclose how much CIMON costs, only to say that the 2-year project was funded by the Geman space agency, together with Airbus. “Two years for a space project is not a long time,” Biniok said. “We had to deal with many security issues with the European Space Agency and the German space agency. These were planned to be problems, and this was something we could handle.”

CIMON will move autonomously, the ISS is able to follow the astronauts on their beck and call. The only task of Barley to perform, the exchange of Cimon the battery and turn it on. CIMON the battery takes two hours and is charged via a different system, which is already in the ISS, making it easy to use.

Biniok added that the AI is used in CIMON is already used on Earth, in about 20 sectors, including healthcare, where it is used for the support of doctors, nurses and patients. It contains a number of Watson-based technologies, including Watson-Assistant Watson Speech-to-Text, Watson Text-to-Speech and Watson Visual Recognition.

CIMON is set to launch on SpaceX’s CRS-15 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on the 29th of June.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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