Robots as Fitness Coaches for Astronauts

As part of a new project funded by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), scientists at Bielefeld are studying new ways of reducing the physical and psychological stress facing astronauts spending a long time in space. The idea is to use so-called artificial intelligent robot systems. The 3-year project is located in the Research Institute for Cognition and Robotics (CoR-Lab) at Bielefeld University and is receiving a grant of 2.2 million Euros.

"Mens sana in corpore sano." – The best way for astronauts to keep mind and body "in shape" is fitness training. Particularly during long periods in space, it is necessary to counter not only the negative effects of weightlessness on the muscles, but also mental complaints such as depression. The new project at Bielefeld University will study whether a robotic fitness coach can help astronauts to overcome their natural human laziness and run through regular training units in order to minimize muscular atrophy.

Hence, the goal of this project is to equip artificial intelligent systems with the ability to interact socially, thereby enabling them to adapt flexibly to an astronaut's mood and deduce more effective interaction strategies from their human partner's reaction. To do this, the robot fitness coach has to interpret the mood of its charge correctly and find the right words that will motivate her or him. This requires a robot that can recognize individual persons and process naturally spoken language, facial expressions, and gestures. 

The project is not just starting with empirical analyses of the motivation techniques of human trainers but also, and above all, with the development and testing of suitable systems. These will use the anthropomorphic robot head FloBi developed in Bielefeld along with the small mobile robot platform Nao.

After the robot systems have been developed, they will be put to the test in a globally unique isolation study. Human subjects and robots will be observed over several weeks in a closed habitat at the medical centre of the German Aerospace Centre in the Porz district of Cologne. One of the aspects researchers will be analysing is how the use of robots changes their training performance and mood.

Following the latest recommendation of the German Council of Science and Humanities in favour of a new research building (http://www.cit-ec.de/node/2309) for the field of interactive intelligent systems – to house the Cluster of Excellence 277 Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC), SFB 673 Alignment in Communication, and the Research Institute for Cognition and Robotics (CoR-Lab) as a public-private partnership with the Honda Research Institute Europe (HRI-EU) – this project funding from the DLR yet again highlights the growing importance of Bielefeld as an international competence and research centre in the field of interactive intelligent systems.

The project will be financed by the space agency of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) with funds from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology as approved by the German Parliament under Project number 50 RA 1023.