Astronauts must feel envy for the octopus. Imagine them performing a water analysis. The task requires astronauts to read instructions from a manual and test the drinkability of their water while holding down the testing apparatus—all while floating in microgravity. An extra six arms would be useful. Instead, a voice-operated computer named Clarissa has been developed to help the astronauts with their work.
The system was created to give astronauts a hands-free helper, says Beth Ann Hockey, project lead of the NASA Ames Research Team. Clarissa reads aloud instructions to procedures, so that astronauts can give full attention to the tasks at hand. The system had a successful test in June, during a mission to the International Space Station.
Clarissa is a far cry from the phone banking or airline flight information systems that consumers are familiar with. Those systems are directive, leading users through a set of questions for which there are limited answers, such as an account number or the word “yes.” In contrast, Clarissa is responsive, constantly at-the-ready and listening for relevant commands.
The system has the ability to distinguish between a command and a conversation that might include the same words. If an astronaut says to a colleague, “I told the computer to load water testing,” Clarissa does nothing, recognizing that because the command is embedded within a larger sentence, no action is required. If however, the astronaut says, “Load water testing,” the system loads that procedure and waits for the next command.
This capability makes Clarissa more “human,” says Hockey, and thus easier to interact with. (Astronauts nixed the idea of a Star Trek-like interface that would require them to say “computer” before every command.) But achieving this “human” functionality has been a challenge because of the innumerable variations in what people say and how they say it. To solve this problem, Jean-Michel Renders, a researcher from Xerox, developed technology that enables Clarissa to analyze utterances for various possible meanings and learn the appropriate response.
Both Hockey and Renders say Clarissa’s technology has applications in any area where having one’s hands free is important or useful. Think aircraft repair, navigating a car or even making copies. Imagine being able to tell your printer, “Make five double-sided copies.” Now there’s some technology we can all use.