‘Age of the Android’ Arrives: ISS Astronauts to Unpack NASA AI-Powered Space Robot in Orbit Tonight

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The space shuttle Discovery delivered humanoid robot helper called Robonaut 2 to the International Space Station. The NASA space robot will see first light tonight (March 15), when astronauts aboard the International Space Station finally pry open its closet-size packing crate where it's spent more than six months.  Robonaut 2 — a prototype AI powered robotic assistant designed to help astronaut crews with chores and repairs — first arrived at the station aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Feb. 26.


"They'll do an inspection to make sure it all looks good, that there was no damage during launch," said NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The humanoid robot — complete with a head, arms and an upper torso — will be the first dexterous humanoid robot in space and it assures its followers in one of its first tweets alluding to 2001: A Space Odyssey that, "No, no relation to Hal. Don't know if I'd want to admit to having him on my family tree if I was. [Definately] don't condone his actions."

Is this another vivid sign that we have entered the dawn of the age of post-biological intelligence?

Although there are already several robots in space — including the famous now AI-enhanced Mars Rovers, which have been zipping around the red planet for years — NASA and G.M.have created the first human-like robot to leave Earth.

The robot is called Robonaut 2, or R2 for short, and it weighs in at 300 pounds, with a head, torso and two fully functional arms. At first, R2 will be monitored in space to see how it performs in weightlessness, but NASA hopes to eventually use R2 to assist astronauts during space walks and to work alongside engineers in the space station.

In a joint news release, John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office, said, “The partnership of humans and robots will be critical to opening up the solar system and will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today.”

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0133ecb20a3c970b-320wi According to researchers on the project, "Robonaut systems are the first humanoids specifically designed for space."

Robonaut is a collaboration between the Robot Systems Technology Branch at the NASA Johnson Space Center and the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a robotic 'astronaut equivalent'. Robonaut looks a bit like a human, with an upper torso, two arms and a head – all controlled by a human operator through telerobotic technologies. Robonaut was designed with the concept of creating a robot for tasks that 'were not specifically designed for robots.' In order for the Robonaut to complete these 'human-like' tasks, it is equipped with hands that are actually more dexterous than those of an astronaut in a pressurized spacesuit.

In 2004, the second generation of Robonaut gained mobility when engineers attached its body to a Segway Robotic Mobility Platform (RMP) commissioned by DARPA. Using virtual reality instruments, a human operator was immersed in the Robonaut's actual environment and was able to perform remote operations.

According to researchers on Robonaut, "As the project matures with increased feedback to the human operator, the Robonaut system will approach the handling and manipulation capabilities of a suited astronaut."

With more 'haptic technology' which uses sensory feedback to recreate the sense of touch, a user might wear gloves that allow them to 'feel' objects in a virtual world. You could examine the texture and weight of rocks, or even experience the crunch of icy martian dirt.

Dr Grace Augustine's Avatars on Pandora go well beyond current technologies. We're not going to be growing any biological avatars for human explorers in the lab – but modern robotics are getting close to providing a 'human' experience through increased dexterity and mobility. Robotic avatars could allow humans to fully experience the environment of other worlds. Through the eyes of robotic avatars we could watch the sunrise over the rusty, red crater rims without having to "experience suffocation, the icy death of -200 degrees C on their skin or the sting of microscopic dust in their eyes."

Even though NASA and others have come a long way in developing avatars, the technology still has a long way to go before we're having adventures on Pandora-like planets. Perhaps more advanced civilizations on distant worlds have developed avatars just as good as those in the movie. 

Casey Kazan

Source credits: spacedaily.com, nytimes.com, space.com

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