The Air Force Flew an AI Copilot on a U-2. Now, the Algorithm Has a New Mission. – Popular Mechanics


  • The U.S. Air Force flew an artificial intelligence (AI) copilot on a U-2 spy plane in California.
  • The flight marked the first time in the history of the Department of Defense that an AI took flight aboard a military aircraft.
  • Next, the AI will see real-world missions.

    Dr. Will Roper is the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.


    Last month, the United States Air Force successfully flew an AI copilot on a U-2 spy plane in California, marking the first time AI has controlled a U.S. military system. The computerized U-2 copilot, affectionately named Artuµ, brought scenes from Star Wars a few parsecs closer to a cockpit near you. But the odd spelling was a nod to something that isn’t from a galaxy far, far away: the µZero algorithm developed by DeepMind.

    Designed to dominate games like chess and Go, the Air Force retrained this commercial algorithm to operate the spy plane’s radar in under five weeks. After a million simulated missions, Artuµ wasn’t a typical Airman on its first flight at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing—it was the mission commander. The results were so promising that we’ve added electronic warfare to Artuµ’s next assignment: a role likely to see real-world missions in the near future. The real R2-D2 packed some mean electronic defenses, too.

    a u 2 dragon lady assigned to the 9th reconnaissance wing prepares to land at beale air force, california, dec 15, 2020

    A U-2 Dragon Lady assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing takes off from the runway at Beale Air Force, California, December 15, 2020.

    A1C Luis A.Ruiz-Vazquez

    An era of algorithmic warfare has indeed begun. And as scary as that sounds, it’s taking place on a much larger battlefield whose “weaponry,” of all things, is commercial technology and startup companies.

    Gamifying Warfare

    To understand that broader campaign, it helps to zoom out from this particular AI front and discover how a startup helped precipitate it.

    Whether played on boards or computers, games were perfect candidates for developing deep reinforcement learning, or the process by which AI intuits the rules, rewards, and penalties of unfamiliar systems through large-scale trial and error. As a new startup in 2010, DeepMind cut its teeth training AI to play old-school video games without access to the underlying code. By 2013, its AI could beat humans at Pong, and by 2020, all humans at any Atari game.

    But DeepMind’s crowning achievement came in 2016 when AlphaGo, µZero’s great-great-grand-algorithm, dethroned the reigning world Go champion and ended human preeminence in strategy games—a true “Sputnik” moment for gaming, computer science, and military futurists alike.

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    Gamifying warfare for computer applications is nothing new. Franchises like Call of Duty, for example, make a pun-intended killing at it. U-2 reconnaissance operations are no different: Finding enemy targets is the reward, missing targets—or worse, being shot down—is the penalty, and physics are essentially the rules. But to grasp this “game,” Artuµ had to learn everything the hard way, including even basic tactics no human would try, like expecting enemy air defenses also to shoot down enemy aircraft. They don’t. Lesson learned. Repeat.

    But playing against a simulation takes Artuµ’s lessons only so far. To achieve beyond-human deep learning tactics, just as the µZero family did for strategy games, we need Artuµ to play against itself. However, unlike playing the opposite side of a board game, an opposing military operation, like denying reconnaissance during a simulated missile strike, needs unique algorithm training for its unique reward-penalty scheme. Consequently, we had no “enemy Artuµ” (or C2-B5 for Star Wars fans) to train against for Artuµ’s first flight.

    dr jeannine abira, u 2 federal laboratory director of advanced mathematics and algorithm development left and dr jesse angle, u 2 federal laboratory technical director, work on a computer sep 21, 2020 at beale air force base, california

    Dr. Jeannine Abira, U-2 Federal Laboratory Director of Advanced Mathematics and Algorithm Development (left) and Dr. Jesse Angle, U-2 Federal Laboratory Technical Director, work on a computer September 21, 2020 at Beale Air Force Base, California. The U-2 Federal Laboratory promotes “edge development,” a concept to develop new software integration on operational systems.

    A1C Luis A.Ruiz-Vazquez

    So to operationalize electronic warfare—what Winston Churchill dubbed the “wizard war”—we’re gamifying it and creating that C2-B5 alter ego at our U-2 FedLab.

    Next, we’ll complete millions of self-training runs to teach Artuµ/Cetuµ both the good side (sensing) and dark side (jamming) of using the (electromagnetic) Force, though both are inherently good for our purposes. After mastering basic wizarding techniques, we expect deeper Jedi magic to follow, a bar already set in World War II. Aside from thwarting numerous Luftwaffe bomber raids, spoofing navigation signals caused one bomber to land mistakenly at an Allied airfield—a true Jedi mind-trick!

    Given modern military reliance on the electromagnetic spectrum—from position, navigation, and timing to sensing and communications—“deep” machine-learned wizardry should soon live up to Churchill’s moniker.

    As Artuµ and future AI join the controls of military systems, expect deep tactics to become increasingly critical for combat success, especially against adversary AI. However, unlike board games, future warfare will pit teams of humans and machines against each other, where few moves—including AI-crippling algorithmic mind-tricks—are off limits. Battlefield success will require minimizing both carbon- and silicon-based weaknesses so a true synergy of strengths can emerge.

    Innovation Is the New Battlefield

    us air force gen mark kelly, right, commander of air combat command, and us air force command chief master sgt david wade, air combat command, receive a brief from u 2 federal laboratory staff about the organization’s stand up and recent projects, dec 4, 2020, at beale air force base, california

    U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, right, commander of Air Combat Command, and U.S. Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. David Wade, Air Combat Command, receive a brief from U-2 Federal Laboratory staff about the organization’s stand-up and recent projects, December 4, 2020, at Beale Air Force Base, California.

    U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Colville McFee

    The story could easily end right here: algorithmic warfare as the new battlefield and AI, the new weaponry. But past weapons breakthroughs, like satellites, microelectronics, and the internet itself, were created nearly exclusively for the U.S. military at costs prohibitive to most nations, let alone companies. Now, even startups can rival once-military-grade capabilities, and scaleups once science-fictional.

    The µZero family is more than a Sputnik moment for science-fictional AI. It’s equally—and arguably, more importantly—that a war-winning breakthrough wasn’t developed in a government laboratory, defense industrial base, or government contract. It happened thanks to a commercial tech startup with a big idea that scaled to achieve it.

    DeepMind is not alone, nor is AI the only war-winning tech front. Other commercial technologies—autonomy, quantum machines, space, and synthetic biology, to name just a few—keep booming thanks to big private investment and broad startup participation. No matter which technology breakthrough happens next, future combat will undoubtedly have a “.com” domain.

    With global innovation making future warfare difficult to forecast, innovation itself is the new battlefield, waged in every classroom, laboratory, business, and nation each day. On this battlefield, building world-leading militaries still matters, but using them to catalyze world-leading innovation bases—ones capable of sparking both future defense and industrial revolutions—matters far more.

    Winning the market race for all flavors of technology, including commercial ones, becomes a national security imperative. Like Han Solo practiced, shooting first is the certain way to fight another day on the innovation battlefield.

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    But commercial innovation has historically been a “.mil” bust. As recent decades witnessed amazing commercial innovation, the Pentagon sat comparatively lifeless, fettered by Cold War habits that hinder agility. Like the slow response of Xerox to personal computers, Sears to e-commerce, or Blockbuster to video streaming, our military could easily face the barrel of future technologies—instead of the sights—unless we wake up now. Otherwise, there’s no guarantee the next Artuµ-like breakthrough will fly first in a U.S. cockpit.

    And it’s not just future military might that’s at stake. These same game-changing commercial technologies are impacting portions of the globe in ways once imagined by Orwell or Netflix’s dystopian Black Mirror. Ensuring new technology enables freedom of ideas, markets, and elections—and not unflinching control sought by perpetual governments—is an ideal many share. But with controlling “closed-system” governments anointing, fully backing, and even stealing designs for their own companies, how are U.S. and free world innovators to compete on a level field?

    Though an important national question, there are many ways the Air and Space Forces can help level the innovation battlefield. Our funding is significant, stable, non-dilutive, and patient for returns. Our $160 billion-per-year military market can afford easier entries and earlier revenue-generating business cases. And with nearly $1 billion dedicated annually to startups and scaleups, our AFWERX investment arm is now one of the largest potential early-stage “investors” in the U.S.

    In only two years, AFWERX partnered with over 2,300 tech companies—half new to government work—and successfully completed the Pentagon’s first venture capital collaborations, matching over $2 billion of private investment with over $600 million of non-dilutive government funds.

    One marquee example, our Agility Prime “flying car” program, recently certified the nation’s first vehicles for military missions with 16 more companies in hot pursuit, accelerating this emerging market for military and commercial uses. Scaling this kind of military partnership across commercial tech sectors is precisely how winning on the innovation battlefield might look.

    With so many advantages and some early successes, the historical dearth of “defense unicorns” indicates just how dangerously tech-isolated the Pentagon became. With our defense industrial base continuing to collapse—and 80 percent of our nation’s research and development now commercial—if future DeepMinds don’t view us as an upfront innovation partner, future Artuµs become a dangerous matter of happenstance, if they happen at all.

    Meanwhile, the next world war is being fought each day: not a hot one requiring a Roman numeral, nor a cold one against an economically-isolated competitor, but a Goldilocks technology competition—just right to prevent a U.S. Sputnik-like response that could rally us to victory.

    That sounds like just the kind of deep strategy µZero and Artuµ would contrive.


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