By testing its first AI pilot in real planes the US could suddenly field thousands of old grounded planes in battle to regain overmatch against their opponents.


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After years of watching Artificial Intelligence (AI) thrash human pilots in simulated battles and saying that one day an AI will fly and control a real fighter jet, rather than just be a co-pilot in one, one has, and in this case it controlled a USAF F-16 fighter jet in dogfights against other aircraft in tests.


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The series of AI powered flights took place in December 2022 but have just been revealed by DARPA, the research and development branch of the US Department of Defense.


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DARPA has previously tested AI control of jets on a simulator as part of its Air Combat Evolution programme. That research has now progressed to using a modified F-16 fighter jet, a common but ageing part of the US military’s air fleet.

This jet, known as the X-62A, flew from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, several times during a single week. Several different AI algorithms were tested, attempting take-offs, landings and using simulated weapons in aerial battles, but a human pilot was always on board in case of emergency.


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Autonomous military aircraft are being researched by countries around the world because they can be used in dangerous situations without risk to human life – at least on the aggressor’s side – and can operate at G-Forces that would incapacitate or kill a human pilot.

Notable as the latest announcement might be, Kenneth Payne at King’s College London says that the tests are of questionable importance in the overall progress of autonomous vehicles.

“There’s relatively not a lot of complexity. In some respects, dare one say, it’s easier as a challenge than autonomous cars,” says Payne. “Because with autonomous cars, you’re in a complex environment, especially if you’re in a European city; it’s raining, there’s narrow streets, but most importantly, there’s plenty of other humans around as well. A lot of these problems are stripped back in aerial combat.”


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Having AIs control combat also raises ethical issues about whether an algorithm can make the right decisions in complex scenarios with high stakes, says Payne. But given that many countries are working on such technology, the competitive pressure means that AI warplanes are likely to be developed, and potentially used, regardless of whether one country has qualms about the idea, he says.

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Discovery, RT, Viacom, and WIRED, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Aon, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.

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