As if Artificial Intelligence (AI) was taking over the world and mysterious objects flying through the skies were not enough, the US military has decided to up the ante by creating a robot capable of piloting a combat plane by itself.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on Monday, February 13, that it had successfully tested an F-16 test aircraft with AI software that piloted it for 17 hours. The Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA) X-62A flew in December 2022 at the Air Force Test Pilot School in California.
While we’ve already seen the use of autopilot features in aircraft, this is the first time a robot has taken control of a fighter jet, and it could one day open the doors to fully autonomous, unmanned aircraft flown entirely by AI.
“VISTA will allow us to parallel the development and testing of cutting-edge artificial intelligence techniques with new unmanned vehicle designs,” M. Christopher Cotting, director of research at the US Air Force Test Pilot School, said in a statement. . He added that the system “will quickly mature the autonomy of unmanned platforms and allow us to offer a tactically relevant capability to our warfighter.”
Of course, this sort of thing probably conjures up more images of Skynet in action and killing all of humanity in Terminator than the high-flying stunts of Top Gun.
However, the software is designed for the VISTA to mimic other aircraft. That means pilot students can train to fly everything from the massive B-52 bomber to the smallest fighter, all in the F-16.
A recent upgrade called the Simulation Autonomous Control System allowed VISTA to test its autonomous F-16. Thanks to this software, the plane was able to take off and land on its own, as well as operate “against a variety of simulated adversaries and with simulated weapons capabilities,” Lt. Col. Ryan Hefron, director of the Aerial Combat Evolution program (ACE) from DARPA.
It should be noted that there was a pilot on board to make sure there was a human to take the reins of the aircraft in case it went out of control.” Hefron added that the AI allowed pilots to learn how to respond to certain situations in and out of a dogfight.
DARPA launched the ACE program in 2019 to research and incorporate AI into its jet fighters. The idea is that autonomous fighters could help give human pilots an advantage during dogfights.
The program is also part of a broader movement within the Department of Defense to embrace AI and use it to bolster the nation’s defense and national security. In 2022, the United States spent nearly $3 billion on AI research alone.
The implications are pretty scary. For one thing, having an autonomous F-16 means the robots will be able to potentially engage enemy aircraft, something UAV drones can’t. Also, unlike a UAV, an F-16 can carry a much larger payload of 20,000 pounds versus 3,800 pounds for a drone. It’s a much more sophisticated and deadly weapon, and now the US military wants a robot to control it.
On top of all this, AI doesn’t have a great track record: it’s been known to fall prey to racism, sexism, prejudice, and hallucinations. When used for home loans or judgments, the consequences of relying on artificial intelligence are already dire enough. Imagine what happens when the stakes are World War III.