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Alexa is going to the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission

The Artemis 1 flight around the moon is likely to occur later in 2022. The mission is officially designated as “uncrewed.” However, as it turns out, the test of NASA’s first moonship in half a century will have a crew member — in a manner of speaking.

“Flying on NASA’s Orion spacecraft during the uncrewed Artemis I mission will be Callisto, a technology demonstration developed through a reimbursable space act agreement with Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin has partnered with Amazon, and Cisco to bring the Alexa digital assistant and Webex video collaboration aboard Orion’s first flight test in deep space.”

Alexa is a device that a person interfaces with by voice. It can do everything from answering questions, for example about the weather, to controlling the devices in a smart home. Many people find Alexa very useful, although the device can sometimes be frustrating when it doesn’t understand or can’t respond to a command.

Callisto will work by allowing controllers on the ground to interface with Orion’s onboard Alexa through the Webex system using the Deep Space Network. The Alexa system will likely do things like report on the status of the spacecraft’s systems and the cabin’s environment (atmosphere, temperature, etc.) Alexa will also be commanded to perform certain tasks related to the Orion’s mission. The idea is that during future missions, astronauts will be able control the spacecraft with voice commands.  

Amazon engineers have compared Alexa to the Enterprise’s computer on “Star Trek,” a device that was so helpful to the character Spock. However, if Alexa becomes a true artificial intelligence (AI) assistant for future space explorers, another science fiction trope comes to mind.

“Open the pod bay doors, please Alexa.”

“I’m sorry, Dave, but I’m afraid I can’t do that. Would you like to hear some music from the Doors?”

Besides Hal-9000 from “ 2001 A Space Odyssey,” science fiction is filled with AI systems that run amok, from Colossus in “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” which took over the world for our own good, to Skynet from the “Terminator” movies, which destroyed the world because it felt annoyed with humans one day. Presumably people working on similar AI projects, including Space Alexa, will include a failsafe off switch.

The prospect of having spacecraft and, in the fullness of time, a lunar base equipped with AI assistants is going to revive the robots versus humans debate, which is as old as the space age when experts such as American physicist James Van Allen argued against humans flying in space at all. Why not just equip exploration spacecraft with AI systems that would direct robots exploring the moon and Mars as needed?

A piece in the Harvard Business Review suggests that rather than replacing humans, AI systems will actually partner with them, each complimenting their strengths. “Through such collaborative intelligence, humans and AI actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths: the leadership, teamwork, creativity, and social skills of the former, and the speed, scalability, and quantitative capabilities of the latter,” the piece states.

Businesses that use AI to complement human employees are seeing greater enhancements in productivity than those who use such systems to replace human beings. So, as it is on Earth, so it will be in space.

Human space explorers will train their AI assistants to perform certain tasks, such as monitoring ship’s systems and evaluating data from exploration activities. The humans will evaluate the results of the tasks their AI partners undertake, especially when they are unexpected. Finally, the humans will monitor their AI partners and ensure that they continue to operate in a responsible manner — i.e. by not harming their human shipmates as happened in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

By developing the protocols of AI-human interaction in space, NASA and its commercial partners will produce systems that will provide earthly applications. Companies are already struggling with the question of such partnerships in industries ranging from manufacturing to information systems. Technology spin-offs derived from the space program benefiting the economy are an old story. The integration of AI systems into business processes on Earth will be the latest chapter.

The Callisto system is another example of what was once science fiction becoming reality. The prospect is filled with both peril and promise. Humans should have the foresight to embrace the latter and avoid the former.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags A.I. Artificial Intelligence Amazon Alexa Mark R. Whittington moon landing NASA Space Space exploration

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