The US Air Force Is Planning a Human-Versus-AI Showdown in the Skies

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla. escorts a KC-135R Stratotanker from the 336th Air Refueling Squadron, March ARB, Calif., following an aerial refueling mission, May 16, 2013 off the coast of Northwest Florida. The 33rd Fighter Wing is a joint graduate flying and maintenance training wing that trains Air Force, Marine, Navy and international partner operators and maintainers of the F-35 Lightning II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. John R. Nimmo, Sr./RELEASED) DIGITAL

The US Air Force has long experimented with artificial intelligence to assist pilots at the controls of advanced aircraft, but can an AI fly missions all on its own? The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is now developing a system that can engage in air-to-air combat with a human pilot. The Air Force hopes to test its skills with a real dogfight.

This is a military project, so we don’t have a full picture of the technology and proposed test. In fact, some of the basic details are classified. However, head of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center Lt. General Jack Shanahan gave a recent interview in which he laid out the military’s general plans for testing AI-controlled aircraft. 

The AFRL team began exploring the possibility of creating an AI-operated fighter aircraft in 2018, hoping to have a demonstration model within 18 months. At the time, the agency noted it would start with simpler planes like the F-16 but could eventually create AIs to fly advanced fighters like the F-35 or F-22. 

Clearly, the military would like to have planes that carry out missions without putting pilots at risk, but the Department of Defense is still grappling with the issues raised by autonomous weapon systems. Even the best human pilots have a few thousand hours of mission experience. Advances in AI mean it’s possible to create a virtual pilot that has millions of hours of training. Shanahan explains such a system could augment a pilot’s decision making in the cockpit. As for whether such an AI would ever be given sole discretion to fire weapons, the Air Force isn’t saying. 

While the Air Force is moving forward with a man vs. machine test, currently scheduled for July 2021, Shanahan is careful to temper expectations. Companies around the world are still trying to perfect self-driving cars — the best such systems are only effective under ideal conditions. There are no “level four” autonomous vehicles that can take you all the way to your destination without any input. Shanahan doesn’t seem to think the Air Force is going to create an AI that bests humans on the first go. But the lessons learned with self-driving cars might inform the development of autonomous fighter aircraft.

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