Space agencies around the world are developing AI companions to help astronauts stave off loneliness, combat space-induced mental illness and assist with work on multi-year trips.
“Deep space travel will pose unique challenges to crew, challenges that are inherently different from those currently experienced on orbit,” Alexandra Whitmire, a scientist with NASA’s Human Factors and Behavioral Performance team, told Space.com. “Given the distance of Mars, for example, the duration of such a mission will last around 2.5 years.”
“The size of the vehicle will be relatively small, suggesting that the crew of four or six will live and work … confined in a small habitat,” Whitmire continued. “An AI social support tool, if proven to be effective, could serve as part of a toolkit of countermeasures available to future crew venturing on a mission to Mars.”
Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have explored whether AI-powered companions would support astronauts’ mental health and workflows during long journeys. In 2018, ESA debuted the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, known as CIMON, a round volleyball-like computer that floated around the ISS and could aid astronauts with experiments.
Later iterations of CIMON acted as an empathetic human companion aiming to connect emotionally with the crew. It also could answer voice-prompted questions and record interactions.
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A host of science fiction films have included AI systems that are intended to aid space explorers, such as HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Real-world AI systems, however, need additional work, Whitmire said.
“More research is needed to understand methods through which this type of support could be granted and to what extent, etc., as well as potential pitfalls, before recommendations are made for AI as a behavioral health countermeasure,” the NASA scientist said.
“It’s possible that for some crew, having an AI ‘companion’ offers a safe sounding board,” Whitmire continued. “For many, however, the ability to connect with family through audio and visual loops and the maintenance of team cohesion of the crew on the mission, will serve as key methods to support their behavioral health.”
NASA is also using AI for other projects like preparing for solar storms’ impacts and helping the agency find UFOs and potentially hazardous asteroids.
Meanwhile, Japan’s space agency, JAXA, was the first in history to incorporate AI into a rocket, their Epsilon spacecraft, which debuted in 2013, according to the ESA. The Epsilon’s AI conducted system checks and monitored performance autonomously.
The French space agency, the UK Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency have all also funded AI projects.
Still, the focus should be on AI tools helping astronauts, Whitmire said.
“While I think AI has the potential to provide support and could augment measurement and diagnostics as well, our mission (of supporting mental health of future crews), remains largely human-centric and human-driven,” she added.