What Happens When AI Fighter Pilots Take to the Skies?

What Happens When AI Fighter Pilots Take to the Skies?

Humans are already being out-manoeuvred in simulations by F-16s armed with algorithms—a new sci-fi war reality is approaching.

In 2022, the pilot of an F-16 fighter jet will jink hard to the right and flick over into a roll, struggling to evade the plane behind them. They won’t make it. Years of training and experience will suddenly become redundant. The AI algorithm controlling the chasing plane will have changed the face of war forever.

AI first demonstrated the sorts of aerobatic skills needed for dogfighting back in 2008. Andrew Ng’s team at Stanford University developed an AI-piloted helicopter that learned how to perform stunts simply by watching human pilots. The question then was: how long could human pilots retain their edge?

The answer: not much longer. In August 2020, DARPA, the US Defense Department’s research agency, said that an algorithm had defeated a human pilot in simulated aerial combat. Eight AI pilots fought against each other, with the winner, from Maryland-based Heron Systems, matched against an F-16 pilot in five simulated dog fights. The AI beat the human 5-0.

In 2021, China ‘s own AI battled a human pilot, Fang Guoyu, a Group Leader in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. “At first, it was not difficult to win,” said Fang. But the AI learned from each encounter and by the end it was able to defeat him.

Beyond the simulator, the Pentagon says it intends to pit humans against machines in 2023. But with China forging ahead too, it is likely to pull this programme into 2022.

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