The first free-flying AI assistant in space

In the immortal words sung by Elton John, “It’s lonely out in space.” But for astronauts on the International Space Station, the journey might be a little less lonely — and maybe a little more productive — thanks to Watson AI on the IBM Cloud and CIMON, the first free-flying AI assistant in space.

CIMON (short for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN) is the result of a partnership between the German space agency DLR, Airbus and IBM. Matthias Biniok, the IBM project lead for CIMON, was first approached for the project in 2016. “Airbus proposed this idea they had to the German space agency: they wanted to build a robot and send it into space. When DLR commissioned them to build it, Airbus approached IBM about handling the AI components.”

The result was a roughly spherical, 11-pound robot that can converse with astronauts on the ISS. Facial-recognition software lets CIMON know who it’s talking to, and a deliberately simple visual design allows CIMON to show basic facial expressions. The astronaut bot can travel around the European Columbus Research Module of the ISS independently, and has proven to be a handy assistant.

Biniok studies Cimon

Matthias Biniok, Leader MVP Team DACH, Leader Space Tech Division DACH, Tech Sales AI Apps IBM Global Markets - Cloud Sales

While there is a sense of play in having CIMON aboard the ISS, CIMON is a scientific experiment itself, so the project was not undertaken lightly.

How Watson Assistant translates to space

“The idea was to create an actual astronaut assistant, so the astronauts could do their work more efficiently,” says Biniok. “A secondary goal was to have kind of a companion in space that they could talk to. That was the original idea, but in the course of things, the project focused in more on getting the experiments done with greater efficiency.”

One way CIMON helps with that is by functioning as a floating brain. The predominant AI technology used by CIMON is IBM Watson Assistant, already in use by IBM clients worldwide. Watson Assistant helps customer service representatives surface relevant and accurate information quickly so questions can be answered faster.

“Imagine you’re an astronaut in space, and you’re at your station working on an experiment,” explains Biniok. “Your hands are busy, and you have a question about the project you’re working on. Normally, you would have to float over to your laptop to get the answer, then back to the experiment station. With CIMON, you can just say, ‘CIMON, what’s the next step?’ and you don’t have to interrupt your workflow.

“Another way CIMON provides assistance is in helping to document the experiments as they’re being done. Astronauts need to record and film everything that they do. With CIMON, they can just tell him, ‘CIMON, come here. Turn your camera 30 degrees to the right and record…’”

Rendering of Cimon aboard space station

What the future holds for CIMON

Biniok stresses that CIMON is only a first step in bringing robotic AI into space. “We can’t really talk about the next steps yet, but I can tell you about our vision. In my mind, the goal is to create a real astronaut companion, a real assistant that is helping, not just on the ISS, but on other space stations, maybe on journeys to the moon and Mars and beyond — that’s the long-term vision. They will definitely need some AI to accomplish those journeys.”

He says he also hopes to see CIMON’s value as a companion grow over time. “When you go too far away from your mother planet, some interesting things happen from a psychological perspective. You get a little bit crazy, seeing earth only as a dot in the sky.”

Biniok suggests that CIMON could help in two ways — first by offering an objective viewpoint, unaffected by the stresses of space travel, and second by providing companionship. “We’re working toward using Watson Tone Analyzer to enable CIMON to recognize the astronauts’ emotions, so that will trigger responses that accord to those emotions.”

And when chit-chat is not desired, the astronauts can hit CIMON’s off button. There is also an offline button that doesn’t turn CIMON completely off, but does disconnect it from the Internet so nothing gets sent back to earth. “That feature comes with a very nice visualization,” Biniok says. “He will actually close his eyes as soon as he’s in offline mode.”

While there is a sense of play in having CIMON aboard the ISS, CIMON is a scientific experiment itself, so the project was not undertaken lightly. “The ISS is an extremely regulated environment,” Biniok says, “and we needed to confirm with all parties involved that CIMON cannot harm anybody or fly into anything. All of the content within CIMON was approved by a researcher who is responsible for the mental health of the astronauts.”

Photograph of Cimon with hands reaching toward its screen

We’re working toward using Watson Tone Analyzer to enable CIMON to recognize the astronauts’ emotions, so that will trigger responses that accord to those emotions.

A testament to the power of AI and the cloud

Biniok proudly notes that all of the Watson services used in CIMON come from the IBM Cloud in Frankfurt. “That tells you how powerful our cloud is. If you can make it work in space, you can make it work anywhere.”

In addition to IBM’s expertise in AI and cloud, Biniok explains that a key factor in the DLR’s decision to choose IBM was data security. “We give the client the choice to opt out of data collection,” he says. “It’s their intellectual property, and we don’t use that data to train our general models unless the client gives us permission. The data belongs to the client, and the models belong to the client. Some other companies won’t give clients that choice.”

As of this writing, CIMON is still aboard the ISS, waiting for his next assignment. An identical version of CIMON resides in an Airbus lab in Germany, where it helps the team troubleshoot problems when they arise in space. A third, slightly lower-tech version is trotted out for events like media interviews and photo ops.

As a concept, CIMON as a scientific experiment and technology demonstrator is still in its infancy. “We’re breaking new ground with this,” says Biniok. “It’s far from a final product, but it’s a way to begin to understand how such systems should look in the future and how they can actually benefit the crew in space.”

CIMON is a registered trademark in the European Union of Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e. V., German Aerospace Center (DLR) and stands for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN. It is a scientific project awarded by DLR, developed by AIRBUS and IBM and funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi).

CIMON in space pictogram