KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Unlike HAL, it won’t be able to open the pod bay doors.
Its programming is limited, capable of conversation and technical support but not much else, at least for now. And instead of the searing red eye of the super computer gone rogue in Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the artificially intelligent robot launched into space Friday has a screen displaying a genial face prone to smiles.
CIMON, as it is known (an acronym for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion), is designed to help astronauts on board the International Space Station perform their work — namely the science experiments they are sent aboard the orbiting laboratory.
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.
The idea to is ease the burden on astronauts in space, where life can get tough and tedious, but not ever supplant them, or their decisions, officials said. Built by Airbus and powered by Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, CIMON looks like an oversized head. It will be guided by cameras and voice commands, able to hold a conversation, and relay information to commanders on the ground.
“We never plan to replace the crew member with the artificial intelligence,” said Philipp Schulien, Airbus’s lead system engineer. “We are just there to support the crew. In the end, the human crew will always be required. The AI is not self-training.”
CIMON flew on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that blasted off at 5:42 a.m. Friday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, part of 5,900 pounds of cargo and supplies headed for the station.
Leaving a stunning contrail in the predawn sky, the launch was a significant one for SpaceX, the California space company founded by Elon Musk in 2002. It was its 12th of the year and the last one of its so-called “Block 4” version of the rocket.
SpaceX plans to fly its future flights on its next-generation iteration, the “Block 5,” a configuration that the company says will be suited to fly astronauts as soon as this year. While SpaceX has been flying cargo to the station for years, it has not yet flown humans.
SpaceX hit a series of milestones with the launch. It was its 15th mission to resupply the station, the 14th time SpaceX reflew one of its boosters, and the fourth time it had reflown one of its Dragon capsules.
But it was the first time it flew anything like CIMON. The robot is still very much in the early stages of development, officials said, an experiment in itself to test how the technology works in space, and how the astronauts would react to it.
Though it was designed specifically for German astronaut Alexander Gerst — it interacted with him during training to recognize his face and speech patterns — CIMON would work with any of the astronauts, officials said.
Gerst helped pick CIMON’s voice and the design of its face. He would be able to summon it by simply saying its name. It would then detect what direction his voice was coming from, orient itself toward him and cruise to him on its own.
The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (NASA TV)
One of its tasks aboard the station will be to help Gerst go through the steps of a specific science experiment. But it will also be tested to see how helpful it can be. Gerst will attempt to solve a Rubik’s cube, first on his own, and then with the help of CIMON.
Eventually, Airbus officials think that artificial intelligence could be helpful on deep space exploration missions to the moon, or Mars. AI could help the crews solve problems, warn of malfunctions — or even just entertain them.
CIMON would be able to “play videos, read books,” Schulien said. “It even has the ability to engage in small talk.”