ESA Astronaut Introduces Cimon, the Floating Spherical Robot Aboard the ISS

Posted by on December 3, 2018 ⋰ 1 Comment

“What are your commands?” asks the spherical robot as it floats through space.

Inch by little inch, we’re getting closer to the futures dreamt up in science fiction. In this video, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst introduces us to Cimon, a robot created to assist astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

According to the European Space Agency, Cimon is short for Crew Interactive Mobile CompaniON. As you can see, it’s a spherical robot with a screen displaying an animated face (evoking Yes Man from Fallout: New Vegas). Created by Airbus, the bot is made of 3D-printed plastic and uses IBM Watson AI tech.

It also runs on Ubuntu, in case you were wondering.

“CIMON is designed to support astronauts in performing routine work, for example by displaying procedures or – thanks to its ‘neural’ AI network and its ability to learn – offering solutions to problems.” – Airbus

The video here begins with a typical demonstration of the robot’s functionality. Gerst asks Cimon a few simple questions, then shows off the bot’s ability to rotate and fly around on its own. He also gives us a brief example of how Cimon can assist with scientific procedures, by reading out instructions and displaying data on its screen.

Then, it’s on to music. Gerst requests his favorite song, Kraftwerk’s “Man Machine.” So far so good.

But at about 4:30, things go a little off the rails.

ESA Astronaut Introduces Cimon, the Floating Spherical Robot Aboard the ISS
Image: ESA/YouTube

Gerst asks Cimon to stop the music and “take a video stream” with his front camera. While Cimon complies, the robot continues to chatter about music. “I love music you can dance to!” it says. Cancel the music stuff, says Gerst.

But no.

“He’s showing the video stream but still talking about music,” Gerst explains. “Also, he was a bit close to deck. I’ll put him back in the center of the cabin, but actually he appears to like the deck position better because he’s starting to fly back towards the deck.”

To which Cimon replies, “Be nice, please!” and “Don’t you like it here with me?”

If that isn’t odd enough, Cimon later proves that it’s not going to take being talked down to.

“He’s actually floating there by himself,” Gerst says as he watches Cimon continue to drift slowly, “So I don’t want to disturb him right now.”

“Don’t be so mean, please,” the robot says.

I can’t be sure if Cimon’s behavior here is some kind of emergent chat bot goofiness, or if he was programmed to do this sort of thing just for kicks, but I guess it doesn’t matter. Perhaps the floating robot’s most valuable quality will be a simple one: The ability to keep the crew entertained.

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Post by Rob Schwarz

Rob Schwarz is a writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. He manages Stranger Dimensions in between changing aquarium filters and reading bad novels about mermaids.

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