The Rise of A.I. Fighter Pilots
On a cloudless morning last May, a pilot took off from the Niagara Falls International Airport, heading for restricted military airspace over Lake Ontario. The plane, which bore the insignia of the United States Air Force, was a repurposed Czechoslovak jet, an L-39 Albatros, purchased by a private defense contractor. The bay in front of the cockpit was filled with sensors and computer processors that recorded the aircraft’s performance. For two hours, the pilot flew counterclockwise around the lake. Engineers on the ground, under contract with darpa, the Defense Department’s research agency, had choreographed every turn, every pitch and roll, in an attempt to do something unprecedented: design a plane that can fly and engage in aerial combat—dogfighting—without a human pilot operating it.
The exercise was an early step in the agency’s Air Combat Evolution program, known as ace, one of more than six hundred Department of Defense projects that are incorporating artificial intelligence into war-fighting. This year, the Pentagon plans to spend close to a billion dollars on A.I.-related technology. The Navy is building unmanned vessels that can stay at sea for months; the Army is developing a fleet of robotic combat vehicles. Artificial intelligence is being designed to improve supply logistics, intelligence gathering, and a category of wearable technology, sensors, and auxiliary robots that the military calls the Internet of Battlefield Things.
Algorithms are already good at flying planes. The first autopilot system, which involved connecting a gyroscope to the wings and tail of a plane, débuted in 1914, about a decade after the Wright brothers took flight. And a number of current military technologies, such as underwater mine detectors and laser-guided bombs, are autonomous once they are launched by humans. But few aspects of warfare are as complex as aerial combat. Paul Schifferle, the vice-president of flight research at Calspan, the company that’s modifying the L-39 for darpa, said, “The dogfight is probably the most dynamic flight profile in aviation, period.”
A fighter plane equipped with artificial intelligence could eventually execute tighter turns, take greater risks, and get off better shots than human pilots. But the objective of the ace program is to transform a pilot’s role, not to remove it entirely. As darpa envisions it, the A.I. will fly the plane in partnership with the pilot, who will remain “in the loop,” monitoring what the A.I. is doing and intervening when necessary. According to the agency’s Strategic Technology Office, a fighter jet with autonomous features will allow pilots to become “battle managers,” directing squads of unmanned aircraft “like a football coach who chooses team members and then positions them on the field to run plays.”