Technology Amazon's Alexa voice assistant hitched a ride on Artemis...

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant hitched a ride on Artemis 1


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“Alexa, how far are we from Earth?

“Currently, Orion is 204,066 miles from Earth and 230,986 miles from the Moon.”

No, Amazon’s digital voice assistant hasn’t lost the plot; Alexa hitched a ride on the Orion spacecraft. After a successful launch of NASA’s Artemis I mission this week, Alexa is currently hurtling toward the moon.

“Alexa, how fast are we going?

“The current relative speed of Orion relative to Earth is 3,281 miles per hour.”

Earlier this summer, on the day Artemis I was originally scheduled to launch, I spent an hour testing the capabilities of this new deep space voice assistant on the ground at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

While this was a demo model (they wouldn’t let me in the spacecraft – I asked), as far as I could tell it was an exact replica of the one on Orion, even down to the lack of an internet connection.

My first impression was, “Wow, this is a fast voice assistant.” It responded to commands in milliseconds – when it recognized them correctly; yes, there is still That issue.

This speed is thanks to the fact that engineers at Amazon have developed a completely local Alexa for Orion – there is no cloud in space (well, no reliable one). Space Alexa is completely self-sufficient, which is something I’d like to see in Amazon’s Earth version. Not only could a cloud-free Alexa be more responsive, but it would also alleviate some of the privacy concerns surrounding a smart speaker in your home.

I can safely predict that will not happen. Amazon’s cloud servers provide Earth Alexa with about 80 percent of its functions. But that speed could come to an Alexa near you for at least some basic functions.

“We [plan] to reuse the local voice technology we developed on existing Earth applications,” Philippe Lantin, principal solutions architect for Alexa Voice Service, told me. “Alexa on Orion can answer thousands of questions locally, so we’re reusing some of that knowledge to build better voice models.”

Local voice control is currently an option with a few Echo devices for certain commands, and Lantin said they’re looking to expand that.

Testing Alexa voice commands and the Cisco Webex conferencing platform on an iPad built into Callisto.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy/The Verge

My second impression was: this thing is huge.

How on earth are they going to find room for it on a spacecraft? NASA is not sending an Echo Dot into deep space. Instead, Lockheed Martin (which built Orion) developed a special – and very large – space suit for the voice assistant software.

Amazon, Lockheed Martin and Cisco paid the bill for sending this Frankensteinian consumer technology creation to the moon

“We had to build an Alexa from the ground up because a standard Echo probably wouldn’t survive the launch,” said Brian Jones, an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin and the man who first came up with this idea.

Alexa shares his space suit — which is actually a large blue panel designed to withstand the rigors of space travel — with a 2020 Apple iPad running Cisco’s Webex software. (It’s all kumbaya in space.)

That big blue panel is called Callisto, and the technical term is payload – because you “pay” to “load” it onto the rocket. And don’t worry. Amazon, Lockheed Martin and Cisco fully footed the bill for sending this Frankensteinian creation of consumer technology to the moon.

Currently, Callisto sits where the astronauts’ controls will be on future manned missions, as Artemis I is not bolted on. Clearly it’s not going there if it’s ever allowed to ride with a real crew. When that happens, it will get a hardware redesign, Jones said.

Callisto in its current form - a large blue panel with an Alexa speaker (top right) and a microphone so that Alexa in the room can hear commands from Houston.  The iPad can display flight telemetry data or be used for communication and real-time collaboration when a crew is on board.

Callisto in its current form – a large blue panel with an Alexa speaker (top right) and a microphone so that Alexa in the room can hear commands from Houston. The iPad can display flight telemetry data or be used for communication and real-time collaboration when a crew is on board.

Neither the iPad nor Alexa is actually connected to Orion’s systems. “NASA was very explicit,” Jones explains. “Thou shalt not drive the vehicle in any way, under any circumstances.”

Instead, NASA allowed Callisto to install a subsystem of Orion’s flight software to test how Alexa could deliver flight telemetry data to a crew and explore the potential effectiveness of voice control for future crewed missions.

But wait, don’t spacecraft already have voice control? No.

You too can talk to Alexa in the room

A special operating room at NASA Space Center Houston has been set up to communicate with Alexa in space to test its capabilities. Testers can send their voice into the vehicle via the microphone and – via cameras in the Orion – see the payload itself and see the interaction with Alexa in space. For more information, go to Amazon’s Alexa in Space landing page.

“There is certainly an expectation among the general public that these vehicles already have voice control technology on board,” said Justin Nikolaus, lead voice UX designer at Amazon Alexa. “There have been experiments, but there’s no AI on board just waiting to answer all your questions like in science fiction.”

This was the problem Amazon wanted to solve. But even with Callisto aboard Artemis, they’re still light years away from a serious solution. Voice user interfaces are super tough and no one has nailed them here on Earth, let alone in space, where technology has to be fail-safe. But someone has to take that first small step.

What happened when the astronaut stepped into gum? He got stuck in Orbit

Nikolaus and his team have been developing a version of Amazon’s voice assistant for space since 2018. The final product is just a technology demonstration – it has no control over Orion whatsoever.

Surprisingly, it really isn’t that different from the AI ​​in your living room. It can tell bad jokes (“What happened when the astronaut got into gum? He got stuck in Orbit”), play some music, set timers and alarms, and turn lights on and off (special lights built into Callisto, not the actual spacecraft lights).

These features are all more limited than Earth Alexa – as every command and response must be pre-programmed – but they can be customized for each mission. For example, the crew’s favorite tunes can all be preloaded on room Alexa.

Follow Orion’s mission on your Echo speaker

To see/hear details about where Orion is during the mission and get reminders about upcoming mission milestones, say “Alexa, take me to the moon” on your Echo smart speaker or display.

Space Alexa can also pull real-time telemetry data from Orion’s software to relay over 100,000 different data points on Orion and, when connected to NASA’s Deep Space Network (NASA’s Internet connection), announce the latest sports scores and news and add items to your shopping list. Yes, when and if the time comes with astronauts on board, the crew can add milk to their shopping list. (They may want to choose the shelf-stable version.)

The benefit of all this is exactly the same as on Earth: Hands-free voice control is super convenient. “Astronauts are extremely busy onboard, and when you’re trying to multitask, speech is a great vehicle for information retrieval,” said Rohit Prasad, lead scientist for Alexa at Amazon. “We bring Star Trek‘Computer’ to reality,’ he said proudly. “We see a big role for AI in space in the future, and this is essentially the first evidence.”

What Callisto looks like aboard the Orion.

What Callisto looks like aboard the Orion.
Image: Amazon

Reality check. We are still far, very far away and far, far away from anything like it Star Trek‘Computer’. The first hurdle is seeing if Alexa can provide those imagined benefits to astronauts in space. Or will the presence of the voice assistant be a somewhat annoying novelty? (As it is in many homes on Earth today.)

During the Artemis I mission, testers send commands to Alexa from Houston, using a loudspeaker to relay the commands as if a crew member were speaking them. Built-in cameras will capture the integrations. Nikolaus hopes it will show how the voice assistant can improve astronauts’ quality of life during their mission and make them more productive.

“Alexa isn’t going to open the podbay doors”

“A crew’s time in space is extremely expensive,” he said. One hour of a crew member’s time on the ISS costs $130,000. “Being able to communicate with the vehicle in as many different ways as possible saves time, and voice is one of those ways.”

The Callisto team interviewed astronauts and NASA engineers to understand what would be most useful to them. Jones said everyone they spoke to was “universally intrigued” by the idea of ​​voice control. Although there was obviously a lot of skepticism.

“Nobody felt comfortable executing mission-critical commands — Alexa isn’t going to open the pod bay doors,” Jones said. “But turning on the lights, setting timers and alarms. That is convenient and not scary.”

An early sketch by Callisto.

An early sketch by Callisto.
Image: Amazon

The flight telemetry data could have some use: it could ask Alexa to check cabin pressure, temperature, oxygen levels, etc., instead of looking at a screen. The voice assistant can also help as they walk through procedures and experiments by reading the next step to an astronaut so they don’t have to take off the Velcro notebook on their leg.

Callisto isn’t the first attempt to send experimental technology into space. Who can forget the robot Astrobees (oddly analogous to Roombas), the “holoporting” doctorand CIMON, the AI ​​space robot that was stupidly scary (and built in part by IBM)?

But the ultimate goal here is to reproduce an Alexa in the room with the same capabilities as the Alexa in your living room. Whether that’s one that responds quickly and correctly to all your commands or the one that sometimes thinks I asked him to blast K-pop around my house when all I said was to set a kitchen timer – well, we’ll have to wait.

But there was one thing I had to check before space Alexa headed for the distant retrograde orbit:

“Alexa, open the pod bay doors.”

‘I’m sorry, Dave. I can not do that.”

Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.


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