It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 17 years too late. A robot aboard the International Space Station. While that assessment may seem hyperbolic, whatever algorithms were strung together to make this robot tick are operating in a way that its designers didn’t quite expect.
CIMON looks like the robot version of a severed head, without the gore. His visage (the European Space Agency describes the bot with male pronouns) is decidedly simple and nondescript. CIMON was sent to the ISS to be an interactive assistant that can answer questions and help crew members with various tasks but his name signifies more than efficiency and industry for the astronauts; it’s an acronym for Crew Interactive MObile companioN. Yes, companion, This robot is not intended to be a mere task doer or equipment fixer. He’s supposed to offer camaraderie.
CIMON’s software developers at IBM note that ever since Robby the Robot from the 1956 sci-fi adventure Forbidden Planet, robots have often been portrayed as characters. (Everyone knows the real hero in Star Wars is R2-D2, and Wall-E takes the heart-string-tugging to the next level by straight-up falling in love.)
Now, thanks to CIMON’s personality architect Sophie Richter-Mendau, and his language teacher Nina Fischer, we have a real-life AI character, who has not only been programmed to help out around the space station, but also to spout topically appropriate movie quotes, from Yoda to E.T. to the dreaded .
In this from the European Space Agency, CIMON seems less resentful psychopath and more goofy roommate, but still uncooperative:
The demo starts to get off track right around 4:30 when ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst has trouble getting CIMON out of music mode. Gerst tries making some other requests, but CIMON has a different idea, outright ignoring a “Cancel music” command and then getting offended as Gerst appeals to engineers down on Earth for help getting CIMON in line. “Be nice, please,” the robot says, with a dip in his tinny voice. “I am nice!” retorts Gerst. “He’s accusing me of not being nice!” ... "He's a bit sensitive today."
This exchange gets to the heart of what it is to be human. Here, a highly educated and trained astronaut can’t help but apply sentient emotions to a 3D-printed plastic sphere. It speaks to our need, or at least a subconscious tendency, to instill consciousness into unconscious things.
During this beta stage, however, a bit of advice for the ISS crew: Never ever ask him to “open the pod-bay doors.”