Filipina is operations lead of world's first AI-powered astronaut 'companion'

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(In celebration of International Women's Day and Women’s Month, Manila Bulletin is publishing stories featuring women who have made outstanding contributions to the country or to their communities.)

More and more Filipino women are building stellar and fulfilling careers here and abroad, even in male-dominated fields.
Their notable achievements and contributions have not only made their countrymen proud, but also served as a source of inspiration for women empowerment across the globe.

Among these inspiring Filipina achievers is Gwendolyne Pascua, currently the ground controller and operations lead at one of the European Space Agency's (ESA) user service and operations centers located at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland, the Biotechnology Space Support Center (BIOTESC).

Biotechnology Space Support Center (BIOTESC) ground controller and operations lead Dr. Gwendolyne Pascua with Cimon (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion), the world's first AI-powered companion in space. (Photo from Dr. Gwendolyne Pascua's presentation during the PAGASA's Women and Girls in Astronomy Forum on March 8, 2022)

"Basically our mission is to have a successful and smooth experiment execution by astronauts. We support the experiments primarily in the International Space Station (ISS)," Pascua shared during the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) Women and Girls in Astronomy forum on March 8.
"BIOTESC team is a small team but very diverse because it's a mix of a lot of expertise. So we're a mix of biochemists, biologists, mechanical engineers, physicists, computer scientists, or IT specialists," she added.

BIOTESC, according to Pascua, was also one of those involved in the development of Cimon--an acronym for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion.

Pascua, who was the project operations lead, explained that Cimon is a robot with artificial intelligence that serves as an astronaut's assistant or companion on the space station. "It can speak and fly," she related.

Cimon was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and developed and built by Airbus in Friedrichshafen and Bremen on behalf of the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

It uses artificial intelligence based on IBM's Watson technology, while the scientific aspects of the project are handled by the Medical Center of the University of Munich.

"It's basically used as an assistant. It should be able to relieve some daily tasks from astronauts as well, and for sure with this, also with the social interaction in a long duration, for example, it can be a companion. It has a monitoring scenario so it has several sensors in it where it could monitor the environment. In the remote scenario, we can control it from the ground. And, of course, to take care of the privacy of the astronauts, it also has this offline scenario where everything is cut and it's just a floating ball," Pascua said.

Cimon first took off towards the ISS in 2018.

"The mission of Cimon continued. Another astronaut used it in February 2020. We actually commissioned the second model because we have to bring the first model back home — to Earth. We have to re-commission the other one and this is the second flight model that we have in orbit until now," Pascua said.
"In the future, hopefully, we will bring Cimon somewhere else in space. Maybe to the moon or for long-duration mission, as it's designed for," she said.

Giving back

The Kalinga-born achiever reflected on her journey leading to her work at BIOTESC.

"No path in this world is straightforward but everyone's path is unique. Wherever we may go or wherever path this leads us, it may not be easy or smooth but along the way, we try to overcome these difficulties. We know that the foundation that we had from our family, we could surpass these difficulties by having the strength in our character. We can build or strengthen our characters and that's the most important part of it right?" said Pascua who is a graduate of Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman.

"The education, the learnings that we had, to keep them with us to find the balance, the right balance, to have that correct balance, that's very important. To have a balance within your physical, mental, spiritual, emotional self. Also, of course, if you keep the faith and always pray, that could guide you along the way. Cliche as it may sound but it does from my experience," she added.

Pascua shared that she had several interests while she was still a student at UP.

"I was doing a lot of extracurricular activities and had several organizations where we support a lot of outreach programs. I just want to say na hindi puro academics ang pinagtuunan ko ng pansin pero (that I didn’t focus solely on academics but) those activities, those learnings built my character. I was able to engage with a lot of people from different walks of life. I think that's very important as well," she said.

Before working at BIOTESC, Pascua also took further studies in Europe.

"Be excellent in what you do. Be passionate about what you're doing. Then those things that you do make them like stepping stones to something bigger. When I was studying I was also interested to learn languages. That was also an edge, I would say because then it prepared me as well to be immersed in other cultures," Pascua said.

She also pointed out that working in a field that is dominated by males is "sometimes good because you can interact with them."

"If they are open to your perspectives...they listen to your perspectives, then it's very good. Maybe there are of course some instances when you have opposing views but the good thing about it of course in this field everybody is professional," Pascua said.

Moreover, Pascua is looking forward to giving back to the community by conducting more educational outreach activities.

"At this stage, I want to give back in any way I can to do more educational outreach because I actually support a lot of educational outreach programs. Our group has a lot of outreach programs. We share what we do to even little children. We design experiments for them. We also use our platform or what we're doing here. We involve the students. For the future, I would like to do also some projects that would involve environment stewardship," Pascua said.