Through my work, I was lucky enough to be approached by the CNES — the French Space Agency — to work on a joint project to ship Spoony to space.
Spoony is the artificial creature we develop at SPooN. Spoony is a persona for AI. Spoony is also a very empathetic creature. With his body, Spoony brings artificial intelligence back to a more diverse crowd. Having a face, being able to perceive you, focusing on social interaction, … all this makes it intuitive to interact with services — even for non technical people, from young children to older people.
Our mission is to ship Spoony with Thomas Pesquet’s next flight —code-name: mission Proxima , no kidding— to be his personal assistant. Or his virtual pet.
Based on a technology developed at the CNES for moving around in space, the idea is to create a zero-G friendly moving Spoony. With that new capability, Spoony will be able to explore the ISS — the International Space Station — or follow Thomas around. We will also develop specific applications to assist the astronauts in their daily tasks.
On top of the practical use, Spoony will also endeavour to reduce stress and create social link in those very harsh conditions.
Robots and space exploration are linked in popular culture. From Star Wars’ R2D2 to the depressed Marvin — from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — people exploring space always have an artificial buddy. Working towards that dream is very motivating!
An empathetic artificial creature
Spoony is not trying to replicate an existing creature. He is a purely artificial creature. His design and behavior is based on a common base shared by big mammals.
He has a face with big expressive eyes. He has a spine — an industrial arm. He has two ears or antennae. Spoony can see you, hear you, feel you petting his face.
Spoony also shares reflexes — or micro interactions — common to the big mammals. For example it has a tendency to mimic your movements, from your body posture to the shape of your mouth. His pupils will dilate or retract depending on whether he’s thinking or not. He even has pseudo hormones — so he can get excited, or frightened, or sleepy when he’s not stimulated.
When interacting with Spoony, you don’t necessarily notice all those little things that add up. But they lower the cognitive thresholds you use for communicating with this artificial intelligence. Neuroscience research showed that there’s a specific part of your brain — the Mirror Neurons — that activate when you interact with a mammal. When those neurons are activated, the communication is easier — even if you don’t speak the same language.
Astronauts are bombarded with information, tasks, things to remember, procedures to follow. They’re also under a lot of stress — both physically and mentally — with long working days and harsh conditions. Not adding to the cognitive charge of the astronaut is primordial!
Natural Interaction programming
You can teach Spoony new tricks on the fly. Using semantic analysis, Spoony can understand rules and apply them when the world matches the condition. He knows what he’s capable of: its pool of skills — both in perception and in actuation. He then continuously checks if he should act on any given rule because it is similar enough to its current understanding of the state of the world.
This is especially important when Spoony goes in a place where live updates aren’t easy. The more you interact with Spoony the better he’ll get at helping you.
Practical Use for Thomas Pesquet
Spoony can have many directly practical uses. Even though the exact use case isn’t perfectly defined, a very probable use case would be to help Thomas with Procedures. As I understand it, Procedures — yup, keeping the upper case here — are a necessary evil.
The astronauts have to replicate experiments in space. And for the people on Earth to be able to assist them, they have to follow every small steps of the predefined guide, take a picture at each step, and send it back to Earth. This transform a simple enough task in a long list of small and frustrating steps. Especially when you’re floating around, and are very tired due to the harshness of the environment. Spoony can definitely help with that. Not only can he help with the procedure itself, for example showing each step to the astronaut, taking pictures when needed, etc. But he can also do it in an empathetic way. Understanding the frustration and having strategies to deal with it for example.
Spoony is also very useful for some of the simple routine of an astronaut. Taking care of an inventory as he navigates the ISS could save some time and energy for the astronauts. As a companion, Spoony can also help with food tracking, or give support through some of the health exam that the astronauts regularly have to suffer through.
Finally, Spoony is a great vector for asynchronous communication. He has been designed for being an intensely social creature. He can aggregate messages, and share them at the opportune moment. From the Earth to the ISS and back.
Shipping Spoony to the ISS with Thomas Pesquet during Mission Proxima is such a great challenge. Obviously we have to deal with the technical challenges — how do you understand someone when the environment is so noisy, how do you get what he wants, how can you best assist him/her at this given time, … It’s also a huge psychological challenge. How can you make someone’s life easier in such a harsh environment, and with so many stressful things to do during the day?
I’m really looking forward to work on those questions! Don’t hesitate to join the discussion on Twitter.
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