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Airbus and IBM Are Sending a Neural Network Into Space

Should we be worried?

Say hello to CIMON! (Image Courtesy of Airbus)

We’ve all seen science fiction movies involving a rogue artificial intelligence wreaking havoc in space on unsuspecting humans. Despite these apocalyptic scenarios, technology marches ever onward.

In June, Airbus and IBM are planning on sending CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN), a floating robot with IBM’s Watson AI technology, to join the crew on the International Space Station. Don’t worry, though; he comes in peace.

Introducing CIMON: The Newest Crew Member of the ISS

CIMON is a floating robot about the size of a medicine ball. It weighs roughly 11 pounds. The device is powered by IBM’s Watson AI, and will be working alongside the crew of the ISS (International Space Station).

This new crew member is joined by Alexander Gerst, who is going back for a second six-month mission aboard the space station to serve as the station commander. The current plan is to send both crew members up in June of 2018.

CIMON is being developed by Airbus to become an intelligent assistant to the astronauts. This new approach is part of the Horizons mission of the European Space Agency.

By leveraging IBM’s cutting-edge Watson AI tech, CIMON will perform three tasks:

  • Experimenting with crystals
  • Solving a Rubik cube based on videos
  • Conduct a medical experiment with CIMON as a flying camera

CIMON features a digital face, along with a voice to make it feel like a part of the crew. The ability to have a conversation with CIMON is a key goal, as the developers believe this will help reduce stress and increase efficiency.

CIMON is also capable of detecting and predicting potential technical problems on board the station. In this way, he acts as an early warning system for the crew.

Matthias Biniok explains in a blog post on IBM’s website:

“CIMON’s digital face, voice, and use of artificial intelligence make it a ‘colleague’ to the crew members. This collegial ‘working relationship’ facilitates how astronauts work through their prescribed checklists of experiments, now entering into a genuine dialogue with their interactive assistant.”

CIMON can support the astronauts in other ways as well. It can display procedures on the screen for astronauts, and it can even suggest solutions to problems by leveraging the “neural” AI network to learn more about the tasks at hand.

How Does IBM’s Watson AI Work?

Watson is a question-answering computer system. It can provide responses to queries that are posed in natural language. It began as a system developed to answer questions on Jeopardy and went on to win a first-place prize of $1 million on the show in 2011.

The software utilizes IBM’s DeepQA technology and the Apache UIMA (Unstructured Information Management Architecture) framework. Several programming languages were used to create the software, including Java, C++, and Prolog.

The hardware portion of this AI is workload-optimized. It leverages massively parallel processors in coordination to simultaneously perform computations. POWER7 processors are used in this manner to gather evidence, analyze incoming data, and produce hypotheses.

To do all of this, Watson pulls from ninety IBM Power 750 servers. Each server contributes a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight-core processor. The system, in total, utilizes 16 terabytes of RAM and 2,880 POWER7 processor threads.

David Ferrucci, the principle investigator on the Watson project, confirmed that Watson can process 500 gigabytes per second. This is roughly equivalent to the content of a million books.

Training CIMON For Duty

Image Courtesy of Airbus

To help train CIMON, it was first given voice samples from Gerst so it could recognize him when he spoke. Photos of both Gerst and other things were also provided to help CIMON recognize his face.

By leveraging the Watson Visual Recognition service, CIMON is also learning the layout of the Columbus module on the ISS. Finally, it has been trained in all the procedures to help complete experiments.

Some of these experiments involve more than 100 steps, but CIMON has them all memorized. This initial test of the technology will run from June to October 2018, but it could be the first of many missions for “floating brain” assistants like this one.

Leveraging AI in the Cloud

The Watson technology powering CIMON is cloud-based. This allows for additional privacy and security for everyone using the tech. Any data that is sensitive or proprietary is stored on a protected remote server.

This eliminates the extra step of uploading data to a cloud to take advantage of AI and neural network features. IBM has a strict model for data and privacy which focuses on allowing clients to integrate their data into a public model without risk of having that data stolen or otherwise used without their consent.

No company, not even IBM themselves, will be able to use this data for their benefit. This allows companies to make their own advancements without fear of losing their competitive edge.

Future CIMON Missions

During this first mission, CIMON will have limited capabilities. In future missions, researchers want to use this technology to examine group psychological effects that develop in teams over a period of time.

This could also be useful for studying longer missions to the Moon or Mars. The ability to intelligently interact with assistant systems could be a major factor in future missions. Airbus is also excited to explore the potential applications of this technology on Earth.

Specifically, assistants like CIMON could be useful in both medical and social settings. Systems like this could have a bright new future both in space and here on Earth.



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Bradley Ramsey

Bradley Ramsey


Technical Writer at Supplyframe. Lover of dogs and all things electronic.