World Space Week 2023 is here and Space.com is looking at the current state of artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on astronomy and space exploration as the space age celebrates its 66th anniversary. Here, John Loeffler discusses how AI companions might help keep astronauts on deep space missions mentally healthy.
In one of the more light-hearted scenes of Christopher Nolan’s otherwise tension-filled film “Interstellar,” the four Endurance astronauts are lifting off on the movie’s mission to save humanity. Riding along with them is a quippy AI named TARS that jokes that it is looking forward to using them all as servants on its robot colony and wishes Matthew McConaughey’s character the best of luck getting back to the ship once TARS blows him out the airlock for talking back.
Told that TARS has been programmed with a humor algorithm for the benefit of the humans on board, 634-257McConaughey’s Cooper asks TARS what it’s humor level is set to and promptly commands the AI to scale it back a bit.
Like a lot of “Interstellar,” Nolan went to great lengths to envision what the future of deep space exploration would look like, and AI companions for human astronauts are as important to that vision as the film’s spectacular black hole set piece, Gargantua, even becoming important characters in the film in their own right.
Back on Earth, NASA, the European Space Agency, and a wide assortment of private space companies are all looking at artificial intelligence as a key part of future space missions like the upcoming Artemis moon missions and eventually the first crewed missions to Mars. But as humans push deeper into space, these AI systems may not simply be tools to help carry out operational tasks but might provide important emotional and mental health support for crew members experiencing the most unique instances of social isolation ever experienced by human beings.
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The unique mental health challenges of deep space
Space, famously, is a very lonely place, and the unique environment of even low Earth orbit is enough to dramatically affect a space traveler’s mental health. When William Shatner, Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk, rode a Blue Origin rocket into space in 2021, he said he expected to feel an “ultimate catharsis,” but instead was rocked by an intense sorrow.
“It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered,” Shatner wrote in Variety a year after his trip. “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.”
Other astronauts have described similar experiences. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin described the surface of the moon as a “magnificent desolation” in a 2014 Reddit AMA.
“Because I realized what I was looking at, towards the horizon and in every direction, had not changed in hundreds, thousands of years,” Aldrin wrote. “Beyond me I could see the moon curving away – no atmosphere, black sky. Cold. Colder than anyone could experience on Earth when the sun is up — but when the sun is up for 14 days, it gets very, very hot. No sign of life whatsoever.
“That is desolate. More desolate than any place on Earth.”
The human mind is not built for this kind of environment, but adapting to it is not impossible, as countless space travelers to the ISS and beyond can attest to. But the mental health challenges of space travel are as important, if not more so, than issues of physical health.
“Deep space travel will pose unique challenges to crew, challenges that are inherently different from those currently experienced on orbit,” Alexandra Whitmire, element scientist with the Behavior Health and Performance Element of NASA’s Human Research Program, told Space.com.
While there have been very few reported mental health issues among astronauts during space missions, they do happen. A 2016 NASA report on the psychological effects of space shuttle missions found 34 instances of “behavioral signs or symptoms” of note out of 208 crew members over 89 missions, with an overall incidence rate of 0.11 for a 14-day mission, with the most commonly reported symptom being “anxiety or annoyance”.
Extrapolate that out to a two-year round trip to Mars among, and you’re looking at an all-but guaranteed environment of interpersonal conflict and stress to at least some degree.
Which is understandable. Ask anyone who’s been on a road trip with family for more than several hours and they’ll tell you how quickly tempers can flare.
“Given the distance of Mars, for example, the duration of such a mission will last around 2.5 years. The size of the vehicle will be relatively small, suggesting that the crew of four or six will live and work for a period of two and a half years, confined in a small habitat,” Whitmire said.
A road trip through a cold, lifeless void that is one loose seal away from sucking you out into certain doom? Astronauts need all the help they can get to stay mentally healthy.
Can empathetic AIs help keep space travelers mentally healthy?
While most of us might be tempted to write off the value of an AI in deep space as a mental health tool for astronauts (an AI cannot replace a person, after all), they do have serious potential to ease the emotional well-being of those tasked with living on a moon base or even Mars.
Naturally, no one is proposing that these explorers journey alone, and not just for safety reasons. As social animals, being in close contact with other humans is an indispensable part of our mental well-being, and it’s unlikely that even a sophisticated artificial intelligence can replace human-to-human connection.
Still, NASA and the ESA have been looking into bringing AI “crew” as stress relief for a while now. Back in 2018, Airbus and IBM partnered with the ESA on a floating AI for the International Space Station called the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (CIMON). Results were mixed, to say the least.
CIMON’s biggest deficit, really, was its general lack of empathetic responses, making it much more like a floating Alexa smart speaker than an empathetic AI, but other AI firms are looking to introduce this empathy element into future AIs that will hopefully bridge this gap.
NASA, meanwhile, is actively investigating whether such an AI “companion” for astronauts will be useful on future moon and Mars missions, but Whitmire stresses that it must be guided by the evidence.
“Research is under way to help inform mitigation strategies needed to support astronauts in the context of these future missions — including missions to the Moon and to Mars,” she said. “AI as a digital ‘companion’ is a potential area of interest, but more research is needed to understand methods through which this type of support could be granted and to what extent, etc., as well as potential pitfalls, before recommendations are made for AI as a behavioral health countermeasure.”
But an artificial intelligence doesn’t need to replace a human companion for it to be beneficial. Just as journaling can be an important mental health exercise, interacting with an artificial intelligence can serve much the same purpose or prove even more useful if it’s able to provide specific prompts to help guide astronauts who are struggling with some of the deleterious mental health effects of deep space isolation.
“Given the prolonged and extreme isolation of a future Mars mission, an AI social support tool, if proven to be effective, could serve as part of a toolkit of countermeasures available to future crew venturing on a mission to Mars,” Whitmire said. “It’s possible that for some crew, having an AI ‘companion’ offers a safe sounding board. For many however, the ability to connect with family through audio and visual loops, and the maintenance of team cohesion of the crew on the mission, will serve as key methods to support their behavioral health. The goal is to offer an array of evidence-based mitigations to support crew health and performance, and if AI companions prove to be an effective and meaningful countermeasure, then there could be a role for them in a toolkit of countermeasures.”
Still, there is no replacement in the end for human connection, something that NASA is keenly aware of.
“From my perspective, while AI can potentially serve as a tool to support future crews, I think that it will be just that — a support tool- that cannot replace the need for contact with loved ones back home, and the need to support the cohesion of the crew on a mission,” Whitmire said. “Nothing convinced me more of this than going through COVID quarantine, as we all became more reliant on the use of technology to keep us more connected—but we saw that there was an inherent need to maintain that human contact, in person, as much as we could.
“Hence, while I think AI has the potential to provide support, and could augment measurement and diagnostics as well, our mission (of supporting mental health of future crews), remains largely human centric and human driven.”