Thanks to the Terminator movies, Skynet has always been used to represent artificial intelligence (AI) becoming advanced enough to overthrow humans. But with the AI that US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has, we may be approaching a reality that’s closer to the Ace Combat video game series than James Cameron’s blockbuster hit. This is because it has apparently flown an F-16 fighter jet on its own successfully.
According to the agency’s own announcement, the AI was developed under the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. And in less than three years, it has gone from beating experienced pilots in simulations to flying a real plane. The aircraft in question is also a modified F-16 fighter jet, designated as X-62A, also known as the Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA). As is the usual procedure, a test pilot was on board the plane to take over control in case anything went wrong.
US Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan “Hal” Hefron says that the tests “didn’t run into any major issues, but did encounter some differences compared to simulation-based results”. Though he said this was expected when transitioning from a virtual environment to a real one.
If you know your Ace Combat, then you’ll already understand why that comparison was made. If not, then here’s the express explanation: To start, Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere takes place in the future of an alternate universe which sees an AI complete a simulated military campaign multiple times.
#AI successfully pilots fighter jet ✈️
.#ICYMI @deptofdefense artificial intelligence agents successfully pilot a fighter jet making AI history! Using a X-62A VISTA, this was a combined team effort from @afresearchlab, @lockheedmartin, @darpa and @EdwardsAFB.
— Edwards Air Force Base (@EdwardsAFB) February 15, 2023
But that’s not all. The latest entry to the series, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, takes place chronologically just before the events of Ace Combat 3. The final antagonists of the game is revealed to be two AI-piloted prototype super planes that learned to fly by learning from the flight data of a veteran pilot.
All the same, there’s arguably justified reason for invoking the robot overlords meme when reading a report like this. It’s probably also a fitting coincidence that the manager of the ACE program is a person known as Hal, even if we’ve missed the Space Odyssey schedule.
Another pop-culture reference that comes to mind is the 2005 film Stealth, which involves a fictional nuke-equipped AI-powered US military fighter plane that gained sentience after getting struck by lightning. Hopefully this wouldn’t be the case for X-62A, unless it too aspires to be a box office flop.
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