AI Repeatedly Beats Colonel In Aerial Combat Simulations

Shot down: A retired Air Force colonel takes a hit in the simulator from the ALPHA AI warplane. Lisa Ventre/University of Cincinatti

Every time artificial intelligence (AI) beats a human in something, the world cries “Skynet” and assumes the robot takeover is about to happen. Whereas we definitely don’t have to worry about that happening anytime soon, a new AI has wandered onto the stage and, for once, a Terminator film series-inspired machine revolution appears to be somewhat possible.

Writing in the Journal of Defense Management, a team of researchers describe how their AI – dubbed “ALPHA” – has recently bested its most formidable opponent, retired United States Air Force Colonel Gene Lee, in a series of war games.

Specifically, this AI was designed to engage in simulated air combat against human opponents, and this particular ranking officer has considerable aerial combat experience. Impressively, or perhaps worryingly, the colonel was defeated each and every single time they ran a simulation. Not only was he unable to score a kill against the virtual, ALPHA-piloted planes, but he was shot out of the sky every single time.

Most significantly of all, this AI managed all this using no more processing power than the $35 Raspberry Pi, a popular off-the-shelf, basic computer. Although most advanced AIs are expected to make long-term choices using vast amounts of processing power, ALPHA uses something called “Genetic Fuzzy Tree” logic that recognizes which variables in the environment are immediately important and only acts on those. Ultimately, each incremental decision only requires a modicum of processing power.


Is AI the future when it comes to warplanes? If you think the moral and ethical debate over current drones is intense, wait until ALPHA gets a hold of one of these. Chris Parypa Photography/Shutterstock

This AI is ultimately designed to pilot warfare-equipped drones, also known as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). It looks like that program is well on its way, with Lee describing ALPHA in a statement as “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible AI I’ve seen to date.” Although it is constantly learning from its errors, ALPHA is already so advanced that it can assess and choose from up to 250 flight actions before any human combatants have even blinked.

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