Social Robots in Space: Initial Explorations

Photo by Nikhita Singh

Can we enable social connectivity between astronauts and people on Earth through an embodied agent?

Astronauts actively communicate with their families on Earth through several forms of digital and voice communication, including phone calls, video conferencing, and email. However, as astronaut Scott Kelly describes in the Time documentary A Year in Space, the experience can be incredibly isolating despite these affordances. Shortcomings of these modes of communication lie in their inability to translate emotion effectively, failure to facilitate shared experiences, lack of physical feedback, and the resulting perceived lack of control. The psychological effects of these limitations can become heightened over time, and peak during moments when the family on Earth is in need of support. As space becomes more accessible, it is important to consider how we design for social connectivity between people on Earth and in space.

What if embodied social agents, besides being the astronaut's personal sidekick, could help to facilitate a more connected experience between space and Earth? From C3PO in Star Wars to Rosie the Maid in The Jetsons, the idea of robots in space has been well explored in fiction universe. On Earth, embodied social agents have been shown to be effective in providing companionship, relieving stress and anxiety, and fostering connection among people. In this project to send an embodied social agent into zero gravity, we explore several key themes relating to the potential for this technology to offer better connection and shared experience between astronauts and people on Earth.

While in zero gravity, the embodied social agent interacts with people on cognitive, creative, and social tasks with varying degrees of proactive behavior. We collect physiological, audio, and video data of the experience as individuals complete a series of tasks with the agent with the goal of designing agents that can enable us to be more socially connected.