Artificial intelligence — and a few jokes — will help keep future Mars crews sane

The crew of the fictional Daedalus spaceship touches down on the Red Planet in “Mars,” a National Geographic miniseries that delves into the dynamics of future Mars crews. (Credit: National Geographic Channels)

When the first human explorers head for Mars, they’re likely to have a non-human judging their performance and tweaking their interpersonal relationships when necessary.

NASA and outside researchers are already working on artificial intelligence agents to monitor how future long-duration space crews interact, sort of like the holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager.” But there’ll also be a need for the human touch — in the form of crew members who could serve the roles of social directors or easygoing jokesters.

That’s the upshot of research initiatives discussed over the weekend here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Using AI to assess astronauts’ mental state is the focus of a NASA program known as Human Capabilities Assessments for Autonomous Missions, or H-CAAM, said Tom Williams, a researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center who concentrates on human factors and performance for the space agency’s Human Research Program.

The aim is to develop an autonomous system that could assist the crew if it noticed that their performance wasn’t up to par.

“If they’re hit with radiation … a system onboard that’s monitoring their performance offers an assist, just like a driver assist on a car, alerting you that, ‘Hey, your performance on this task is not within the parameter of what we would expect. Do you need assistance?’ ” Williams said. “Or do we need to take over if it drops below a certain threshold that the crew member has worked on and selected?”

NASA psychiatrists currently check in with crew members on the International Space Station during private consultations that take place every couple of weeks, but that kind of real-time, face-to-face check-in will be harder to manage during Mars mission, when delays in two-way communications could add up to as much as 48 minutes. Having an AI system aboard the spaceship could provide more of a real-time backstop.

The system draws upon research being conducted at Johnson Space Center’s Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA.

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