IBM thinks tech being tested by astronauts could help us take care of isolated loved ones

May 7, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

Teflon. Velcro. Memory Foam. LEDs. All technologies that became consumer hits with a helping hand from NASA.

Now IBM, which has a long history with the space program, is exploring whether a digital assistant undergoing testing on the International Space Station could join the pantheon of products whose commercial adoption on Earth was boosted by its use in the Heavens.

“We have been looking at it from an aging perspective and how do we allow individuals to stay in their own homes for longer and help family and friends to keep an eye on them,” says Heather Fraser of the digital assistant. Fraser is the global life sciences and healthcare lead at IBM’s Institute of Business Value, Big Blue’s internal think tank.

She says the current coronavirus pandemic, in which many people are rightfully afraid to physically visit elderly relatives for fear of potentially infecting them, has brought new urgency to the quest for technology that can help older people to live safely on their own—and which can potentially help relatives monitor their condition remotely.

A few weeks ago, astronauts aboard the ISS began testing a self-propelled robot, called CIMON-2, that hovers in the station’s microgravity and can serve as an assistant onboard the craft. The name is an acronym for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion. This version, which arrived aboard a Space X-launched Dragon 2 cargo capsule launched in December, replaces the original CIMON which went into orbit in 2018.

Right now the astronauts are just checking to make sure the robot can understand their voice commands and follow simple instructions.

But astronauts may soon use CIMON-2, or its successor, for real work: doing useful things like reading them passages from spacecraft manuals or checklists, so the astronauts can keep both hands free, and performing the vital, but often annoying, job of shooting video documentation of everything the astronauts do. Eventually, the robot may be equipped with grasping arms and tools that will enable it to complete some tasks on its own in response to the astronaut’s instructions.

The robot’s hardware is built by Airbus, but its brains run on IBM’s Watson A.I. platform. It uses several different Watson artificial intelligence modules to understand the astronaut’s instructions, to look up information for them, and, critically, to assess their emotional state: Are they calm or joking or frustrated? It does this through linguistic analysis of what the astronauts say—it does not take into account their tone of voice or body language.

IBM is among dozens of technology companies pushing the boundaries of natural language processing, a type of artificial intelligence that can analyze and manipulate language. A key strand of this research deals with identifying the sentiments being expressed.

This emotional monitoring is part of a research project that Judith-Irina Buchheim, an anesthesiologist and medical researcher at the University of Munich, is running back on Earth with funding from the German Space Agency, DLR, and help from the astronauts onboard the Space Station. She’s interested in the connection between stress and the immune system and the ways in which the digital assistant may be able to reduce pressure on the astronauts.

Astronauts are trained for both the physical and mental rigors of space but that doesn’t mean they aren’t impacted by the harsh conditions, she says. They have to deal with long-periods of confinement with the same small group of people and have busy work schedules. They operate in an environment where mistakes can be costly or even deadly. So it’s not surprising that they can at times become annoyed with their crewmates, anxious, agitated, or frustrated.

These conditions can be exacerbated by the space capsule’s microgravity and by the way the space station’s orbit around the Earth wreaks havoc with the astronaut’s circadian rhythms (the astronauts will experience 15 to 16 sunrises and sunset each day). Combined with relatively high levels of background noise on the space station, this can lead to astronauts having difficulty sleeping, she says. Poor sleep, in turn, can also degrade immune response.

Buchheim wants to see if working with CIMON-2 can help. “The idea is to reduce workload and stress,” she says. “What CIMON can do is bring back more fun to work.”

In the future, a digital assistant like CIMON-2 may be able to help the astronauts more directly with their mental health—perhaps by acting as a kind of agony aunt or confidant for the astronauts, she says. “You might not want to share your feelings with your fellow crewmates because of a fear of weakening your position,” she says. “It’s easier sometimes to open up to a neutral person, or in this case, a neutral entity.” The digital assistant might even be able to respond using some basic techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy to bolster the astronaut’s mental health.

She also says A.I.-enabled digital assistant will be particularly important as humans begin to contemplate longer space journeys, especially a manned mission to Mars. Right now, if astronauts need help with a problem, they can quickly get advice from ground controllers—it takes just one one-thousandth of a second for a radio signal to travel from the station to Earth. But it can take a radio signal as long as 24 minutes to reach Mars—so astronauts there would not be able to communicate with Earth in real-time. Having a huge store of knowledge available “on device” and an easy way to access it through a voice-controlled digital assistant will be essential, Buchheim says.

Big Blue thinks there are parallels between what CIMON-2 is doing for astronauts in space and what it could do for the elderly back on Earth. Fraser says the system could help older people remember things—like to take medication—and help instruct them in how to perform routine things around the house. It can help them telephone friends and relatives.

It could possibly monitor them for signs of dementia and engage them in activities that might slow the pace of cognitive decline—asking them to tell stories or play brain teaser games, she says. Finally, simply having a digital assistant to converse with might help combat loneliness. And, as envisioned with the astronauts, it may be able to assess a person’s mental health and offer therapy-based interventions.

But Fraser emphasizes that the system might need to be programmed with a large number of different personalities to keep people engaged, citing experiments IBM has already conducted using virtual reality.

“People will get very bored very quickly with just three backgrounds and three avatars,” she says. “So we need to develop ways to personalize this so you can change those and be with who you want to be with.”

A digital assistant like CIMON-2 could also be combined with other technologies to help family and friends remotely monitor their loved ones. For instance, it could be coupled with sensors that detect vibrations, humidity, and temperature in a room and could determine whether a person has kept to their normal routine of switching on a kettle to make tea or cooking meals, Fraser says. If the system didn’t detect these things, it could send an alert to the person’s family, who could then try to make contact with the person through the digital assistant, or, failing that, contact someone to go physically check on the person.

Fraser acknowledges though that it may be far harder to convince older people to use a digital assistant like CIMON-2 than it was to recruit the Space Station’s astronauts for Buchheim’s research project.

“Getting them to use it to begin with and building [the] trust their information is going to be stored safely and not misused, that is a big initial hurdle,” she says.

And, of course, just because something works in Space doesn’t guarantee long-lasting commercial success back on Earth. Anyone remember Tang? Would you willingly drink it today? ‘Nough said.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Heather Fraser’s name and the spelling of Judith-Irina Buchheim’s last name on the second and third references.

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