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An F-16 pilot took on A.I. in a dogfight. Here’s who won

August 20, 2020, 9:40 PM UTC

A computer program easily beat a top U.S. fighter pilot in five rounds of simulated F-16 flight combat during a competition intended to spur the development of artificial intelligence that helps pilots during aerial dogfights.

The A.I. program won all five rounds in under two minutes, showing the technology’s promise.

The “AlphaDogFight Trials” were sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, more commonly known as DARPA, which is exploring the use of A.I. for a variety of military applications. DARPA played a key role in developing the Internet and has focused on encouraging A.I. in recent years.

The agency helped stimulate the development of self-driving cars with a series of obstacle course challenges starting in 2004. More recently, it helped develop an autonomous ship that sailed from San Diego to Hawaii without human intervention.

In the simulated dogfight, the F-16 aircraft—one piloted by an Air Force officer who went by the name “Banger” and another by A.I.—exceeded speeds of 500 miles per hour and pulled 9 Gs as they twisted and turned through the virtual airspace. Each craft was armed with essentially a laser beam that simulated the use of machine guns.

The combat appeared on a video screen with small blips for each aircraft. The human pilot wore a virtual reality headset that gave him a view of the combat as if he were in the cockpit of a real plane.

Although technology scored a resounding victory, the controlled conditions of the F-16 simulation doesn’t mean that the program could have beaten a human in real combat. Col. Daniel “Animal” Javorsek, who oversees the A.I. piloting program at DARPA, said the results come with “plenty of caveats and disclaimers.”

“We pilots never trust anything that’s in simulation and modeling alone,” he said.

One of the program’s goals is to develop A.I. technology that could be used by human pilots to enhance their flying abilities in combat, Javorsek said. An app could react more quickly than a human to what an enemy aircraft does, for example. The programs could also be used to enhance the capabilities of the military’s drones, which generally still require a remote pilot on the ground to maneuver.

One strength of the winning program, created by a small defense contractor called Heron Systems, was its ability to aim its guns more accurately during the high-speed dogfight than the human pilot. The company reached the final by first beating out rival programs earlier in the week from seven other competitors, including apps developed by Lockheed Martin and Georgia Tech.

There was no prize for Heron beyond bragging rights and Javorsek’s old flight helmet with their corporate logo added.

Speaking during a video broadcast between rounds, Banger admitted that the Heron program was a tough opponent. “Standard things we do as fighter pilots are not working,” he said. For instance, he tried to duck out of the way when the A.I. craft flew straight towards him, but the A.I. was able to twist around behind him more easily than a human pilot could.