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NASA spawns smart twin in 'Second Life'

Space agency is trying all manner of Web 2.0 tools to promote missions to the tech-savvy crowd. First it was tweeting, and now it has a cybertwin.

First it started tweeting, then it bore a twin.

NASA is trying all manner of Web 2.0 software to promote its science to the tech-savvy crowd. Months ago, the media director at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Lab began sending out Twitter messages, or 140-character digital notes, about the Phoenix Lander mission to Mars. Now, NASA has created a so-called cybertwin for the Phoenix rover in the virtual world Second Life.

Even though the term "cybertwin" sounds very Web 1.0, the technology is based on techniques in artificial intelligence, such as natural language processing. Instead of tapping NASA's media director for answers, the Phoenix cybertwin calls on a database of knowledge that's been programmed by scientists from JPL. That way, people can ask questions of the Phoenix chat bot to receive quasi-personalized responses about the rover's mission. (The cybertwin was developed by Australia-based start-up MyCyberTwin.)

As you might expect, the cybertwin comes off like a robot.

Q: What is your purpose?
[16:21] Phoenix: I'll be using instruments to probe the northern polar site's soil and ice and I'm here with three main objectives: to study the history of water on Mars, to determine if the Martian arctic soil could support life, and to study the Martian weather.

Q: What is your schedule?
[16:21] Phoenix: I have some pre-programmed commands but mostly I will wait for commands from Earth that arrive in the Martian morning and send my results back in the afternoon. So far I have had commands including the deployment of my robotic arm.

It's hard to gauge whether the Second Life bot will resonate with the virtual community, considering that NASA Web 2.0 promotions can be a mixed bag. So far, the Twitter page has drawn thousands of followers, but Facebook is another story. The Phoenix Lander page on Facebook has only 16 fans. Turns out, social networks can be a lonely place, just like in space.

You can find the Phoenix cybertwin on the NASA Island in Second Life via this address.