In Video Debut, CIMON the ISS Robot Throws an Unexpected Tantrum

By George Dvorsky on at

In terms of glitchy behaviour, we’re not quite at HAL 9000 levels just quite yet — but during the debut demonstration of the International Space Station’s new AI-powered robot, CIMON, the free-floating device displayed some rather questionable behaviour.

CIMON, short for Crew Interactive MObile companioN, is the first interactive flight companion to take part in an ISS mission. The $6 million (£4.7 million), basketball-sized robot was built by Airbus under a contract awarded by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The purpose of the project is to see if an artificially intelligent bot can improve crew efficiency and morale during longer missions, including a possible mission to Mars.

CIMON has no arms or legs, but he’s got some AI-powered smarts and a natural-language user interface. The 3D-printed robot has 12 internal fans, which allow him to move in multiple directions while floating in the microgravity conditions of space. The bot can display instructions on its screen, capture video, play music, and even search for objects.

CIMON was delivered to the ISS in late June, and we’re finally able to see this bot in action, thanks to a new video from the European Space Agency (ESA).

The video shows CIMON’s first interactions aboard the ISS — and let’s just say he’s still rough around the edges.

Things go smoothly at first, as German astronaut Alexander Gerst, with NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor looking on, asks CIMON some basic questions. CIMON capably tells Gerst his name and where he’s from, while also demonstrating his ability to tilt his smirking robotic face. After helping out with a scientific procedure, CIMON plays Gerst’s favourite song on request, Kraftwerk’s “Man-Machine.” Very nice choice.

But then, at around the 4:08 mark of the video, CIMON starts to act a bit squirrely. Beyond this point, the demonstration looks like a scene taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with CIMON playing the part of HAL 9000 and Gerst as David Bowman.

Unwilling to move past music mode, CIMON accuses Gerst of not being nice, and asks him to stop being so mean. The shared glance between Gerst and Auñón-Chancellor at this point — at the 6:04 mark — is absolutely priceless. Acting like a three-year old, CIMON asks, “Don’t you like it here with me?” and promptly starts to sink toward the deck. And then he asks the crew when it’s time for lunch.

Okay, so not the smoothest debut.

Despite CIMON’s erratic behaviour and wonky drifting, however, Gerst complimented the robot’s ability to float motionless in the cabin. It’s still early days for the project, but CIMON is providing some comic relief at the very least. Indeed, as part of his mission, CIMON is supposed to the keep the crew’s morale high, so in this sense he’s already succeeded through his unexpected shenanigans.

Well, at least until CIMON locks Gerst outside the ISS during his next spacewalk. [ESA]