Emotionally Intelligent Robots to Accompany Astronauts in Space Missions

Category: Technology/Innovations


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. empathetic / ˌɛm pəˈθɛt ɪk / (adj) – describing someone or something that can understand people’s feelings or emotions

    A social worker is usually required to be empathetic toward others.

  2. remote / rɪˈmoʊt / (adj) – describing something located far away

    Technology has enabled people to communicate with others in remote places.

  3. real time / ˈri əl taɪm / (n) – the actual moment when something happens

    Messages sent through chat apps are received in real time, while those sent by post take longer to be received.

  4. companion / kəmˈpæn yən / (n) – a person or thing that spends a lot of time with someone

    She has been my travel companion since childhood, and we have been to at least 20 countries together.

  5. ultimate / ˈʌl tə mɪt / (adj) – describing something that happens or comes at the end

    These tests are preparing them for their ultimate goal to send people to Mars.


Read the text below.

NASA, in partnership with Australian tech company Akin, is developing empathetic robots that can emotionally support future astronauts.

Currently, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) receive mental health assistance from psychiatrists on Earth via remote communication. This system works because the ISS is in low Earth orbit, where communication with a base on Earth can happen in real time.

For deep space missions, communication between Earth and a spacecraft is slower. Thus, NASA started the initiative as astronauts in these missions might require an AI companion that could give immediate emotional support when necessary.

Akin CEO Liesl Yearsley said the firm would like to go beyond developing AI-enabled robots that act as astronauts’ assistants. Akin would like to create an AI system that understands an astronaut’s emotional state and finds ways to support it.

Currently, astronauts aboard the ISS have a robot called CIMON, which stands for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion. While useful for tasks and experiments, CIMON unfortunately lacks emotional intelligence.

With the help of previous designs used in Mars rovers, Akin and NASA were able to create Henry the Helper.  This prototype can interact with humans and comprehend emotions by analyzing human speech and facial expressions.  For example, Henry can give directions or information to someone who looks lost or confused.

Soon, the developers want to introduce two improved versions of Henry—Eva the Explorer and Anna the Assistant. NASA and Akin’s ultimate goal is to create Fiona the Future, an emotionally intelligent AI system, which could be integrated into other platforms aside from a physical robot.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

• Do you think robots can become intelligent enough to understand human emotions and address mental health problems? Why or why not?
• How would you design a robot to comfort astronauts (e.g. soft like a stuffed toy, human-like)? Discuss.

Discussion B

• What do you think attracts people to developing intelligent robots? Discuss.
• Aside from emotions, what other human characteristics would be interesting for robots to learn? Discuss.