Future astronauts could travel with emotional support robots

Future astronauts could be accompanied by emotional support robots when traveling space.

To help astronauts of the future survive the mental challenges that come with residing in space for extended periods of time, space travelers' missions could soon be accompanied by AI-powered, empathetic robotic assistants.

Not only does space travel present astronauts with a slew of physical strains and stresses, spending months or years in such a physically demanding place with limited space and the same people can also raise an abundance of mental tests as well. According to MIT Technology Review, scientists are working to alleviate astronauts from some of the latter challenges by creating "an AI assistant that's able to intuit human emotion and respond with empathy."

While such a technology would prove itself useful by being able to anticipate the needs of crew members and "intervene if their mental health is at stake," it has the potential to be life-saving when humans choose to explore beyond Earth's gravitational field and towards deep space.

Though astronauts currently on the International Space Station have an intelligent robot to interact with called CIMON, it lacks proper emotional intelligence according to NASA CTO Tom Soderstrom. As a result, a team at the organization's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on a more sophisticated emotional support companion that can control a spacecraft's functioning in addition to tracking crew member's behaviors.

Right now in the lab, an AI-equipped robot called Henry the Helper can be found meandering around the grounds assisting visitors who appear confused or lost based on their facial expression. Two more emotionally intelligent prototype bots are expected to be introduced later this year, one of which is said to be able to participate in conversations more complex than giving navigation assistance.

The team's final goal is to make a companion named Fiona the Future a reality, an emotionally intelligent cross-platform system. Rather than being confined to a physical robotic device, it could be digitally integrated into space stations and habitats on Mars and beyond. Fiona, if all goes according to the JPL's plans, will help keep astronauts of the future stay mentally fit as they embark on their journeys to deep space.