The first gaganaut to head for space in an Indian craft will not be human, but humanoid. The anthropomorphic robot named Vyomamitra, which has been unveiled by Isro, will fly two missions to test the technological environment which human gaganauts will inhabit on India’s first demonstration of human spaceflight in 2022, as well as the systems and instruments that they would use. Vyomamitra cannot test the cabin ecosystem, of course — she would not be able to breathe the air — but she is perfectly capable of issuing commands, activating switches and, obviously, communicating with earth. Driven by speech synthesis software and artificial intelligence, her prototype has already chatted with people at the Isro event where she was introduced to the public, and future iterations will be able to give company to human travellers at the loneliest frontier.
Vyomamitra will be executing the pioneering role which has traditionally been given to animals — testing systems for survivability. Fruit flies and monkeys were the first beings to lift off, riding V2 rockets with devices monitoring their vital signs. Cats and rats went to space, though all the publicity went to Laika, the first dog to get out there. However, using a humanoid robot is obviously more useful, because it can be used to replicate the behavioural and operational responses of a human. Indeed, robots need not remain pioneers testing survivability, or assistants to human crew, but are expected to crew missions that are too prolonged or too dangerous for a human pilot.
As India prepared for human flight, in August 2019, the Russian space agency Roscosmos sent up the anthropomorphic robot Skybot F-850 to dock with the International Space Station. The mission has halted because of technical issues. But if the nation which pioneered human spaceflight with Yuri Gagarin’s mission in 1961 is sending humanoid robots into space, survivability testing is not the only legitimate goal of missions powered by artificial intelligence and robotics. They also provide opportunities to test and develop these technologies under circumstances that do not prevail on earth. The inputs, goals and skills learned are different and while AI on earth specifically focuses on creating systems which do not think like humans, the space industry would value systems that are human-like, to stand in for crew. Vyomamitra represents the very first iteration of AI in space, and later generations could prove to be as essential for spaceflight as cryogenic engines.
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