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Astrobot Ella

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Ella is on the way to Cassiopia:

Traveling at the speed of light for 4,072 days, 9 hours, and 20 minutes, Ella is now 65,582,242,727,556 miles (105,483,308,259,611 km) away from planet Earth.  Refresh this page to see how many more millions of miles she has traversed while you read this sentence.  Check back in 24 hours, and Ella will have traveled over 16 billion miles more.

How did Ella get started on this journey?  On July 6, 2003, Team Encounter facilitated a "Cosmic Call" from a radio telescope at Evpatoria in the Ukraine.  Following modification for high frequency targeted beams, the Russian built antenna made a series of transmissions in order to make contact with intelligent alien life.  She was aimed at star Hip 4872, selected as a promising target and about 32.8 light-years away.

Dr. Alexander Zaitsev was the chief Russian scientist who oversaw the Cosmic Call transmissions.  Ella's transmission lasted approximately one hour and 33 minutes.  The high frequency and focused nature of the transmissions are believed to have a good chance of reception by alien civilizations.  The "noise" be generated by radio and television broadcasts from this planet may be unable to adequately penetrate cosmic dust.

The Cosmic Call project also featured a variety of messages and "Rosetta Stone" attempts to make the transmissions understandable.  Why include Ella?  The thought was that the WordNet database, Convun images with descriptions, book collection, and VB.net source code would include a sufficiently rich pool of clues to allow the stream of data to be deciphered (119 MB in all).  Of course, once activated by the recipients, Ella will be her usual charming self to ensure a friendly response.

We especially thank Richard Braastad of Team Encounter, who managed Ella's participation and expressed an interest in including her in future transmissions.  Robby Garner first suggested the phrase "Astrobot Ella."

Other Musings on the Subject:

A cool October afternoon in Tianjin.

I was out for a walk a few minutes ago, thinking "what would be a good focus mission for Ella?"  It occurred to me that Ella has many of the features that would make it a suitable HAL type companion (minus the homicidal tendencies of course).  One of the difficulties with space travel is that of cabin fever.  Being locked up with a small number of people for months at a time.  A highly developed robot could perform much of the function of another crewmate.

Eliza, the first chatterbot (as far as we know), imitated a psychologist "Yes, I see . . . how does that make you feel?"  Ella has many unique capabilities that make her good for this role.  She plays games, takes dated notes, tells jokes, tells poems, shows pic's, plays music, etc.  She records the user interests, and soon will adjust for those.  She will talk even when ignored, suggest things to do, etc.  Payload is at a premium on any mission, but a DVD takes up little room. 

This effort has potential public interest.  Many would want to talk to the Robot designed to accompany astronauts on long missions.  Others would want to contribute content or have suggestions for the robot character.  Imagine a different character on each DVD.  An astronaut says "Ella is starting to bug me, let's put Piaf back in."  A handful of DVD's could be a psychological lifesaver.  Pictures of home, poems never heard before, humor surfacing from deep in a database.  

The current Ella technology is far from the ultimate AI, but it can do a lot of entertaining and useful things in a natural language medium.  Voice recognition and speech synthesis can easily provide hands-free interaction.  Ella could serve double-duty as a lone ambassador, like Carl Sagan's Viking plaque with the mechanical recording.  Not that such contact is likely, but it catches the imagination.

I bought an Omega Watch a few years ago, just because it is the same model that was worn on the moon.  A DVD that is a duplicate of the first AI ever to travel into space could have a similar attraction.

Kevin Copple



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