US Air Force to Host First-Ever AI Versus Human Dogfight

The U.S. Air Force plans to host the first dogfight between a human and an AI pilot in July 2021 — while also heeding cautionary tales from other industries pushing the envelope in autonomous innovation.
Brad Bergan

The U.S. Air Force will host the first dogfight between an AI and a human pilot, according to Air Force Magazine. Currently working on an autonomous drone capable of shooting down a human-piloted plane in air-to-air combat, the Air Force's top tactical experts plan to host the showdown in July 2021.


US Air Force to host AI versus human dogfight

Air Force researchers are developing a new autonomous aircraft capable of shooting down a human pilot in air-to-air combat, with a showdown slated for July 2021.

Head of the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center Jack Shanahan said the Air Force Research Laboratory team is pushing the proverbial envelope of what the U.S. military can build compared to earlier iterations of aircraft more familiar to the world in the 20th and 21st centuries.

"[Team leader Steve Rogers] is probably going to have a hard time getting to that flight next year [...] when the machine beats the human," said Shanahan during the June 4 Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies announcement. "If he does it, great."

Early AI pilot tests in F-16, before F-22, F-35

The AFRL team behind the forthcoming showdown also launched an AI-piloted fighter jet in 2018, which they hoped would show progress in 18 months. The journal Inside Defense reported in May 2018 that the "big moonshot" would first integrate machine-learning technology with a less-advanced aircraft like the F-16 — before working with a newer jet like the F-22 or F-35.

"Our human pilots, the really good ones, have a couple thousand hours of experience," said Rogers to Inside Defense. "What happens if I can augment their ability with a system that can have literally millions of hours of training time? [...] How can I make myself a tactical autopilot so in an air-to-air fight, this system could help make big decisions on a timeline that humans can't even begin to think about?"

Autonomous innovation is trial-and-error for Air Force

It's not easy to find details on this story (it's a military operation, after all), but the video above shows a quietly confident Shanahan saying that the AFRL team expects that the "machine [will] beat the human."

However, Shanahan added that the Air Force is minding concerns about potential challenges posed by other areas of autonomous innovation, saying: "There is no level four, full autonomous vehicle out on the roads today." In other words, just like Tesla and its autonomous vehicles, the U.S. Air Force doesn't place itself above potential mishap at this early stage in the saga of autonomous vehicles, reports Engadget.

Whether the Air Force's project achieves all aims or not, this venture will join a long line of other AI innovations on the way from the agency. One notable project is the Skyborg wingman drone project, which hopes to curate an AI-powered system of support for sky-high pilots. The U.S. military in general is already prepping for the addition and integration of machine learning into every area of operations — from routine maintenance to combat tactics.

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