DARPA’s ACE program is going ahead with sticking an AI inside a real fighter jet

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Last year we saw a human fighter jet pilot take on an AI system in a series of simulated dogfights that… didn’t end well for the human. DARPA’s ACE (Air Combat Evolution) program has moved on since, furthering the agency’s goal of putting an AI system in control of a fighter jet and sending it into a real-world dogfight.

And now, more detail has emerged about how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency intends to stick an artificial intelligence system into an actual jet and let it… you know, fly and fight.

ACE’s high





Which is, objectively, a very cool thing to contemplate — unless the AI becomes self-aware and decides to carpet bomb the set of the newest season of Survivor. But that’s not likely to happen. More likely is that something goes haywire with the control system and the AI wrecks several million dollars’ worth of aircraft. But DARPA’s ACE program has a few ideas on how to prevent that from happening.

The defence agency hopes to accurately create an aero-performance model of an Aero L-39 Albatros, a training jet from Czechoslovakia, with the aim of eventually uploading the AI into its cockpit and having it take control of the aircraft for a live-action dogfight with, and alongside, human fighter pilots.

First, the modelling will have to be completed, so the AI’s algorithm can learn how to fly the thing. Then, DARPA (through a company called Calspan) will have to modify the aircraft itself so the AI can actually perform flight functions, as opposed to just simulating them. Actual dogfights are expected to take place from late 2023 to 2024, assuming everything goes perfectly. It won’t go perfectly. But… we should eventually see man versus machine in a real-world setting and it’s this situation where human pilots might just have an advantage.

AI can respond to all manner of expected behaviours, but there’s very little unexpected inside a simulator. In the real-world, however…? That’s a different scenario.

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