Earlier this year, the International Space Station got a new “crew member” of sorts: CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion), an interactive AI assistant that can float around the station and help answer astronauts’ questions — kind of like a specialized spaceflight cross between Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Clippy.
But CIMON’s debut — seen in a new video release by the European Space Agency — shows an early interaction with the space robot is going, well, exactly the way that every single science fiction movie has prepared you to think it will, via Gizmodo.
The idea behind CIMON is innocuous enough. Developed by IBM in conjunction with Airbus, the robot was designed with two functions in mind: to help astronauts with tasks, like providing visual walkthroughs for part installations (kind of like how an Amazon Echo Show can show you recipe direction), which seems reasonable enough, and as a companion for astronauts to talk to in the loneliness of space, which is where the creepy part sneaks in.
According to IBM, “CIMON also boasts the language skills of C-3PO, the conversation abilities of Marvin (from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series), the cuteness of Wall-E, and the technical know-how of HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey—just, you know, without the evil part,” which makes this all a bit more disconcerting. Matthias Biniok, the team lead at IBM, apparently saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, realized that “That’s gonna be a big issue,” and then still programmed a space-bot that will refuse to open the pod bay doors when asked (according to IBM’s site, that is a real Easter egg).
And as seen in the video, the first few queries from astronaut Alexander Gerst go well enough. But after playing a music stream, CIMON got a little hung up on it: “I love music, you can dance to it.” Attempts from Gerst to get CIMON to move on were similarly rebuffed: “I understand that you like the music, I understand that.”
The ball-shaped robot then accused Gerst of not being nice. “Don’t you like it up here with me? Don’t be so mean please,” in the sort of flat, emotionless tone that one assumes comes right before it gains sentience and starts singing “Daisy, daisy…”
CIMON was programmed to detect Gerst’s emotions, and given a personality that would let it identify the German astronaut and carry on conversations with him. Though researchers working on the project hailed the 90-minute meeting as a success, CIMON’s conversational skills could clearly use some work. Sadly, there won’t be much time for more practice. Gerst is headed back to Earth next month, while CIMON will stay on the space station.
Eventually, Gerst and CIMON were able to get along, at least enough for Gerst to get CIMON to stop its video recording, seemingly staving off humanity’s destruction — at least for another day.