When we think about the future of space travel, it’s hard not to imagine futuristic spacecraft and technologies that, like Arthur C. Clarke once mused, would seem “indistinguishable from magic” to the minds of the present day. Along with advanced spacecraft and other modes of travel, artificially intelligent robots also come to mind, the likes of HAL 9000 from Clarke’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it I can sing it for you.”
It’s no surprise that the 2001 comparisons are already being made with the announcement that aeronautics company Airbus is launching its own futuristic AI assistant into space.
Named CIMON, short for “Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN,” this floating AI robot is being heralded as the first to arrive on board the ISS; it was launched into space just last week.
Chicago Tribune reports that, "On Friday, it became the first AI technology launched to the space station, officials said, an experiment that would be a sort of Alexa in space, able to help astronauts through the steps outlined in a manual, show pictures of certain parts of the experiment and answer questions about it."
“We are the first company in Europe to carry a free flyer, a kind of flying brain, to the ISS and to develop artificial intelligence for the crew on board the space station,” said Airbus’ Manfred Jaumann. “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.”
CIMON was made mostly out of 3D printable parts, and is constructed of plastic and metal components. At the core of CIMON’s AI is IBM’s famous Watson supercomputer technology, which is currently being utilized in a variety of different industries and applications.
On July 2, news of the successful docking of the SpaceX Dragon (recognized as the first private spacecraft to visit the ISS) made headlines, with its artificially intelligent cargo intact and ready for service.
CIMON wasn't all that was sent to the ISS on the recent SpaceX Dragon launch. Among the vessel's other cargo had been a Micro-12 unit, which will be used for studies in cellular biology aboard the ISS, for learning how microgravity affects the growth of living organisms. The spacecraft also carried with it a generous delivery of ice cream bars, Texas blueberries, and even variety of super-caffeinated coffee for the current space station occupants to enjoy.
It wasn't hard to anticipate that comparisons to 2001's HAL (of which there are already too many) would be expected, as we have begun sending virtual assistants into space to aid human astronauts. The present continues to afford us new innovations that we already recognize from the available sci-fi canon, although their real-life counterparts are, for now, often just vague in their likeness.
In other words, facts have not yet caught up to the lofty standards set by fiction... nor will they probably for some time. Granted, CIMON (that is, Watson's spacefaring alter ego) is a step in that direction though, and perhaps at least an indication of things to come.
Image credit (top) via DLR/T. Bourry/ESA.