A medicine ball-sized device, which weighs about 11 pounds, will soon serve as a robotic assistant for astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

Designed To Assist Astronaut Alexander Gerst

On his second six-month mission to the ISS, German astronaut Alexander Gerst will test Crew Interactive Mobile Companion or CIMON for short.

The system, which its creators describe as a "flying brain," is an experiment by the Space Administration of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in collaboration with IBM and Airbus, which built the device.

The spherical object houses artificial intelligence and would float in the zero gravity environment of the space station. It features a screen that can display information for astronauts.

CIMON will be sent and tested on the ISS as part of the European Space Agency's Horizons mission. The autonomous assistance system is designed to help Gerst in his daily routines aboard the space station. The device can show an image of a friendly face to greet its handler and recognize the astronaut by his face.

"Watson AI was trained using voice samples and photos of Alexander Gerst," Airbus said. "Alexander Gerst also had a say in the selection of CIMON's screen face and computer voice so that he, too, could 'make friends' with his electronic colleague."

CIMON'S Tasks At The Space Station

CIMON will support ISS astronauts as a type of assistant but Airbus said it will only be equipped with a selected range of capabilities in its first space mission.

Astronauts aboard the ISS and the AI will work together on tasks, which include solving a Rubik's Cube, working with crystals and performing a medical experiment, where the AI assistant will serve as an interactive camera. Eventually, however, CIMON ay be used to examine the effects on people who have long-term space missions.

"The system is a technology demonstrator that will provide the following and other services: increased efficiency and productivity, personal assistance functions with voice and facial recognition, as well as testing of AI-based human-machine interaction over a prolonged period," DLR said.

Airbus said that social interaction between humans and machines such as those between astronauts and assistance systems with emotional intelligence may contribute to the success of long-term missions.

"CIMON's digital face, voice and use of artificial intelligence make it a "colleague" to the crew members," Matthias Biniok, of IBM said. "The developers responsible for CIMON predict that this will help reduce astronauts' stress and at the same time improve efficiency."

The development of assistance systems also has potential applications on Earth particularly in the field of medical and social care.

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