Take a peek at how Amazon is prepping Alexa for space


When it comes to voice-controlled artificial intelligence in science fiction, smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa have been a mixed bag. 

We've seen it in everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Trek, and Amazon's Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and lead scientist for Alexa, is a fan of the latter. Prasad intends to encapsulate this symbiotic and hopeful interaction between space passengers and responsive technology in Alexa's greatest journey yet: going to the moon.

In January, Amazon announced that its Alexa smart assistant would go to the moon on the first of NASA's three Artemis missions in the 2020s. The Space Send System, a 3.5-million-pound rocket, will launch the nearly 16-foot-diameter Orion space capsule to the moon, with Alexa embedded into the spacecraft's dash as part of a cargo named Callisto. The unmanned Artemis 1 mission will circle the moon rather than land on it.

“The need to communicate to a machine has been there for a reason in fiction,”says Prasad in a new mini-documentary that follows the actual moonshot process from Amazon's perspective. “Star Trek was a big influence on me as a kid… the fact that you could just speak to a computer and get your requests fulfilled was mind-boggling for me.” 

Preparing Alexa for space flight, like the Artemis 1 mission, has brought some unique hurdles for Amazon and its partners Lockheed Martin and Cisco. Onboard Orion, Alexa will no longer be able to access cloud data, unlike on Earth. This meant the team had to figure out how to shift the system's complicated voice processing procedures to the device. In the future, Prasad argues in the video, this learning process might be utilized to boost Alexa use in distant parts of the world.

Alexa will continue to test its capacity to help people even without humans onboard by conducting virtual crew experiences in near real-time between Johnson Space Center and the Orion ship. Alexa may one day be able to retrieve telemetry data from Orion and answer inquiries like "How fast is Orion traveling?" and "What is the temperature in the cabin?" for busy astronauts on their route to the moon.

Despite all of the potential advantages of having Alexa on board, the Callisto team says it's just as crucial to plan for the system's failure as it is for its success. That way, even if Alexa or Callisto fails, the mission itself is not in jeopardy or facing a 2001-like crisis.

According to NASA officials on a recent press call, Artemis 1 will try a fourth wet dress rehearsal in June, with a launch no early than August. Alexa is expected to launch into orbit before the end of the year.
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