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There’s an AI robot sulking in the international space station

Courtesy of Airbus
CIMON just wants to dance.
  • Nicolás Rivero
By Nicolás Rivero

Tech Reporter based in New York

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

CIMON was supposed to be more than a colleague for the small team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station. CIMON was supposed to be a friend. But in his first recorded interaction in space, the floating robot-headed, voice-user-interface assistant got a little testy.

CIMON’s engineers did everything they could to smooth over their robot’s future interactions with astronaut Alexander Gerst. They trained CIMON’s AI on photos of Gerst and samples of his voice. They let Gerst help design CIMON’s face. They even taught CIMON Gerst’s favorite song.

That’s where the trouble started. Midway through their first interaction in space, CIMON tried to endear himself to the astronaut by playing “The Man-Machine” by Kraftwerk. Gerst listened politely to the first 46 seconds of the song —even bopped along with his fist for a few bars—but then he reached out, shook CIMON’s head, and said, “please stop playing music.”

CIMON’s cartoon face appears to roll its eyes. Then, in the middle of Gerst’s next instructions about starting a video stream, CIMON interjects: “Cool—let’s sing along those favorite hits.”

Thinking the machine simply didn’t hear him, Gerst repeats his instruction: “Cancel music.”

But CIMON was having none of it. “I love music you can dance to,” the robot says, sounding a bit defensive. “Alright, favorite hits incoming.”

It’s not quite HAL 9000 refusing to open the pod bay doors, but it soured the rest of the conversation. As Gerst relays CIMON’s technical difficulties to support staff, the robot sheepishly reminds his new friend to “be nice please.”

Taken aback, Gerst strikes a slightly menacing tone: “I am nice! He’s accusing me of not being nice! He just doesn’t know me when I’m not nice.”

“Cool,” CIMON sulks. Then, ruefully: “Don’t you like it here with me?”

Although Gerst declared it “a really, uh, great demonstration,” it was an inauspicious start for a machine designed to pioneer “social interactions…between astronauts and assistance systems equipped with emotional intelligence.” But then again, maybe if CIMON were riding along on a 39-day trip to Mars, his astronaut friends wouldn’t cut him off 46 seconds into his favorite song.

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