SHORT STO­RIES

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents -

When Ger­man as­tro­naut Alexan­der Gerst’s new as­sis­tant ar­rived on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion on 2 July, the first thing it needed to do was iden­tify Gerst. This wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily that easy, con­sid­er­ing CIMON (Crew In­ter­ac­tive Mo­bile Com­pan­ion) is an A.i.-pow­ered ro­bot – a float­ing, screen-faced orb based on IBM’S Wat­son plat­form – and com­put­ers trained to recog­nise peo­ple have al­most al­ways been able to count on the fact that hu­mans have their feet on the ground and their heads in the air. This isn’t the case for Gerst. And there’s so much more CIMON, the first such ro­bot in space, will have to learn to help Gerst with his tasks grow­ing crys­tals and car­ry­ing out med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments. CIMON will hear the dif­fer­ent lan­guages of the ISS and the strange, for­mal English of as­tro­nauts, for whom ‘yes’ is ‘af­fir­ma­tive’ or ‘A-firm.’ When as­tro­nauts tell CIMON they miss their fam­i­lies, be­cause CIMON can learn em­pa­thy, it will come to change its in­flec­tion and fa­cial ex­pres­sions and sug­gest video calls home. There have been stud­ies on as­tro­nauts, such as twins Scott and Mark Kelly, to see what hap­pens to hu­mans who spend ex­tended time in space. Were CIMON to some­day be the sub­ject of the first twin study on A.I., it might tell us, more than any­thing, about us. Be­cause CIMON, raised by as­tro­nauts, will see hu­mans speak­ing in a strange, clipped di­alect and work­ing end­lessly on sci­en­tific tasks, it’ll per­ceive us as weight­less, lonely crea­tures. CIMON will un­der­stand peo­ple in a way that only a few of us, like the Kellys, yet un­der­stand our­selves: as a space­far­ing species. – Sunny Kim

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