Towards SPACE THEA

Social robots are robots that come close to animals and humans, interact and communicate with them. They reproduce characteristics of animals and humans in their behavior and appearance. They can be implemented both as hardware robots and as software robots. The SPACE THEA project should have already started in March 2020. Because of COVID-19 it had to be postponed. Now the master student and his supervisor, Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel (both School of Business FHNW), start with the preparatory work. In winter 2020/2021 and spring 2021 the programming of the voicebot is then carried out. SPACE THEA is designed to accompany astronauts to Mars and to show them empathy and emotions. In the best case, she should also be able to provide psychological counseling, for example, based on cases from the literature. The project will use findings from social robotics, but also from machine ethics. The results will be available by summer 2021.

SPACE THEA

Space travel includes travel and transport to, through and from space for civil or military purposes. The take-off on earth is usually done with a launch vehicle. The spaceship, like the lander, is manned or unmanned. The target can be the orbit of a celestial body, a satellite, planet or comet. Man has been to the moon several times, now man wants to go to Mars. The astronaut will not greet the robots that are already there as if he or she had been lonely for months. For on the spaceship he or she had been in the best of company. SPACE THEA spoke to him or her every day. When she noticed that he or she had problems, she changed her tone of voice, the voice became softer and happier, and what she said gave the astronaut hope again. How SPACE THEA really sounds and what she should say is the subject of a research project that will start in spring 2021 at the School of Business FHNW. Under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel, a student is developing a voicebot that shows empathy towards an astronaut. The scenario is a proposal that can also be rejected. Maybe in these times it is more important to have a virtual assistant for crises and catastrophes in case one is in isolation or quarantine. However, the project in the fields of social robotics and machine ethics is entitled “THE EMPATHIC ASSISTANT IN SPACE (SPACE THEA)”. The results – including the prototype – will be available by the end of 2021.

The BESTBOT on Mars

Living, working, and sleeping in small spaces next to the same people for months or years would be stressful for even the fittest and toughest astronauts. Neel V. Patel underlines this fact in a current article for MIT Technology Review. If they are near Earth, they can talk to psychologists. But if they are far away, it will be difficult. Moreover, in the future there could be astronauts in space whose clients cannot afford human psychological support. “An AI assistant that’s able to intuit human emotion and respond with empathy could be exactly what’s needed, particularly on future missions to Mars and beyond. The idea is that it could anticipate the needs of the crew and intervene if their mental health seems at risk.” (MIT Technology Review, 14 January 2020) NASA wants to develop such an assistant together with the Australian tech firm Akin. They could build on research by Oliver Bendel. Together with his teams, he has developed the GOODBOT in 2013 and the BESTBOT in 2018. Both can detect users’ problems and react adequately to them. The more recent chatbot even has face recognition in combination with emotion recognition. If it detects discrepancies with what the user has said or written, it will make this a subject of discussion. The BESTBOT on Mars – it would like that.

A Garbage Robot for Space

According to Tages-Anzeiger (9 December 2019), a consortium led by a Swiss start-up named Clearspace has won a ESA competition and was awarded the contract for a waste disposal mission in orbit. The so-called “chaser” of the EPFL spin-off has four robotic arms with which a remnant of the ESA launch vehicle Vega is to be captured and drawn. Chaser and the part of Vespa will then burn up together in the atmosphere. Later, the company wants to look for new targets. According to Luc Piguet, the issue of space debris is more urgent than ever. The founder and CEO of Clearspace says that there are currently almost 2,000 active and 3,000 inactive satellites. The problem is likely to worsen over the next few years. Where people roam, the mountains of rubbish grow and space fills with rubbish. This may sound literary, but above all, it’s terrible. Robots could be a solution both on Earth and in orbit.