Robot Buddies Could Aid Humans in Space Travel

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 7 2013 10:34 AM

Robot Buddies Could Aid Humans in Space Travel

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Could a Nao like this one be an astronaut's best bud?

Photo by ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images

“Wilson, I’m sorry … WILSON!” 

Toward the end of Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character screams those words in vain as his closest companion—a volleyball—floats away from his life raft. It’s as good as any other scene in cinema in which a human being is forced to abandon another. Probably better.

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Humans are social animals. We crave companionship, and when it’s missing, we manufacture it in all sorts of interesting ways. We obsess over animals, marry pillows, and partner with sex dolls. We spend hours in chat rooms, sow crops in Farmville, and program humanlike emotions into robots. Long story short, there are many ways to work the social sections of the human brain with inputs that are decidedly nonhuman.

Is it any wonder, then, that robot buddies might help keep astronauts physically and mentally fit during long trips in space?

In trials that wrapped up this month, researchers at the Bielefeld University and the German Aerospace Centre found that the presence of robots may have helped test subjects taking part in an 18-day isolation study. These results are based off of preliminary surveys given by the participants compared against a control group that did not have the luxury of cohabitating with robots during the same period of time.

In groups of eight, the participants were confined to a Space Shuttle-sized section of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne, Germany. One group had access to two varieties (species?) of robots, each with a different job. The first, FloBi (not to be confused with Flowbee), is sort of a glorified Mr. Potato Head. It features mix-n-match hair, head masks, eyebrows, and lips so the robot can appear male or female. In addition to displaying a number of facial expressions, FloBi’s cheeks can light up to signal emotion. It is also equipped with high-res cameras, microphones, and gyroscopes that allow it to track the voice of the person its speaking with and move its eyes in that direction. In the study, FloBi’s job was to challenge the participants with memory games and offer simulated interactions through its emotive qualities.

The other robot, Nao, served as a tiny drill instructor. Unlike FloBi, which is all head, Nao has arms and legs and is capable of some pretty impressive movements. (No word if the bots they used were loaded with the moves shown in this “Evolution of Dance” video, but suffice it to say Nao knows how to get down.) Utilizing this range of motion, Nao guided the test subjects in a physical training regimen on a stationary bike, chiming in with advice on how to better perform the exercises and providing feedback on speed.

“A first look at the completed questionnaires suggests that training with our robots was more personal and therefore more effective,” said Dr. Franz Kummert of Beilefeld University in a press release. “Naturally, detailed information will be available only after a comprehensive analysis of all the data. However, these preliminary findings strengthen our expectation that robots displaying social behavior will be accepted as interaction partners.”

As we eye manned missions to Mars, we’ll need to learn how to keep humans on the sorts of physical and mental exercise regimens necessary for long periods of space travel under extreme conditions. Personally, I can’t imagine ever enjoying the yammerings of a two-foot-tall coxswain while I’m trying to work out, but I guess things get weird when you’re stuck in a confined space for long periods of time. Who knows—the flick of an artificial eyebrow may just be the thin line between coping and chaos.

Article dedicated to the totally irrational but loving memory of Wilson. Good night, sweet prince.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.