Astronauts are known as focused and calm for even life-threatening situations. Despite their physical and psychological training, astronauts are exposed to a lot of environmental stressors that hamper their ability to cope and function.

If you are to stay in precisely one confined space, cohabitating, and working with the same people every day for months and years, you may exactly feel what these astronauts experience in their missions.

Astronauts also deal with the physical strains from traveling to space, which may worsen the immune system if not alleviated at the soonest possible time.

Ideas for a New Empathic Artificial Intelligence for Space Travel

Ideas for a New Empathic Artificial Intelligence for Space Travel - THESIS.PH-min

To address these challenges, NASA worked with different kinds of digital assistants, like IBM. IBM introduced the medicine-ball-size emotional robot CIMON, an acronym for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN, which assisted astronauts from NASA’s International Space Station in their responsibilities and tasks for three years.

However, NASA’s CTO at Jet Propulsion, Tom Soderstrom, mentioned that these robots lacked emotional intelligence. They had then collaborated with an Australian tech firm Akin, to design an AI that can:

  • provide emotional support to astronauts traveling on deep-space missions
  • solve technical problems
  • watch human behavior and sense human emotion
  • improve tasks by recognizing emotions and responding to astronauts with empathy
  • anticipate the crew’s needs and make interventions to address risks for mental health

Akin’s CEO, Liesl Yearsley, added that they aim for the robot to process emotions and find ways to mitigate some stress.

Though psychiatrists and doctors’ help is accessible at NASA to address the severe effects of their stress, it is only feasible at low Earth orbit. Rendering assistance and tracking astronaut’s mental and emotional health in deep space would result in communication lags that could last for hours.

Helpful Rovers as Prototypes for AI’s Empathic Approach

Helpful Rovers as Prototypes for AI’s Empathic Approach - THESIS.PH-min

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory partnered with Akin to introduce the Open Source Rover project, where they tested Akin’s emotionally intelligent AI. It resulted in different rovers that demonstrate AI’s ability to communicate with us and recognize our emotions, which are:

  • Henry the Helper
  • Eva the Explorer
  • Anna the Assistant

Soon enough, they plan to develop and release Fiona the Future, which they clarified as a system running on certain places such as,

  • habitats on the moon or Mars
  • a spacecraft such as NASA’s anticipated lunar space station, Gateway or Artemis, though not yet certain
  • isolated places like Antarctica

They also plan to apply this in different conditions, like assisting disabled and older people.

Psychological Limitations to Akin’s Emotional AI

A psychologist from Northeastern University specializing in human emotion, Lisa Feldman Barrett, emphasized that the system training for AI’s ability to recognize human emotions is faulty. She stresses that AIs don’t recognize psychological meaning. Instead, they infer meaning by solely basing it on physical movement.

On the bright side, she recognized that it is ideal to employ this AI in closed environments like the spacecraft. It is for the AI robots to understand and observe how expressions for each individual in a small population change based on the environment and its corresponding context.

If you’re into computer engineering, do you have a theory on how to make AI-powered robots recognize psychological meaning?


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