ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst welcomed a friendly face to the Columbus laboratory this week, with the successful commissioning of Cimon – an innovative technology demonstration.

Short for Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN, Cimon is a 3D-printed plastic sphere designed to test human-machine interaction in space. It was developed and built by Airbus in Friedrichshafen and Bremen, Germany, on behalf of German Space Agency DLR and uses artificial intelligence software by IBM Watson. Ludwig Maximilians University Clinic in Munich (LMU) is in charge of the project’s scientific aspects.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst with technology demonstration experiment Cimon. Image: ESA/NASA.

Cimon weighs around 5kg and has a display screen at its centre. Its main aim is to support and increase astronaut efficiency by displaying and explaining information needed to carry out scientific experiments and repairs.

Other applications include mobile photography and videography and the ability to document experiments, search for objects and maintain an inventory. Cimon can also see, hear and understand what it observes and is equipped with an autonomous navigation system, allowing Alexander to issue voice commands like you would to virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri or Cortana on the ground.

Alexander Gerst interacts with technology demonstrator Cimon in the Columbus laboratory. Image: ESA/NASA

After retrieving Cimon from his box on Station on Thursday 15 November, Alexander brought the demonstrator to life with the words “Wake up, Cimon!” Cimon’s response was: “What can I do for you?”

During its first foray on Station, Cimon demonstrated its ability to look for and recognise Alexander’s face, take photos and video, issue instructions for a student experiment on crystal formation and show a clip about a magic cube. Upon request, it also played Alexander’s favourite song – a Kraftwerk one of course.

Happy with this initial outing, both Cimon’s developers and Alexander hope to see Cimon back in action again soon. While no further sessions are planned during the Horizons mission for the time being, it could mark the beginning of exciting collaboration between astronauts, robotic assistants and possible future artificial intelligence in space.