This spring a A team of small drones, each resembling a small helicopter loaded with sensors, roamed a lush patch of wilderness near Irvine, California. They circled the sky for hours looking, among other things, for rocket launchers lurking in the brush.
The missiles they found were not hostile. They were props for early test flights of an artificial intelligence-filled prototype military drone – the latest product from Anduril, a defense technology startup founded by Palmer Luckey, inventor of the Oculus Rift.
The new Ghost 4 drone shows the potential for AI in military systems. Luckey says it is the first generation capable of performing various reconnaissance missions, including searching for enemy hardware or soldiers in an area, under the control of a single person on the ground. The vehicle uses machine learning (the method behind most modern day AI) to analyze images and identify targets, but it also relies on more conventional rule-based software for critical control and decision-making among swarm teammates.
According to Luckey, the drones can carry a variety of payloads, including systems that can disrupt enemy communications or an infrared laser to aim weapons at a target. In theory, the drone could be equipped with its own weapons. “It would be possible,”
Kevin Ryan, a retired brigadier general and member of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says the military is interested in small drones because they can collect the same information as a satellite or large conventional drone cheaper and faster. and independent.
However, Ryan, who previously worked at iRobot, a company that used to make military systems as well as robotic vacuums, says it is unclear how smart and how useful such systems will actually be. “Everyone understands that AI will be able to do these amazing things later,” says Ryan. “What we don’t know is how fast.”
AI and military systems either go perfectly together or are a terrible idea – depending on who you ask. Many researchers view the military use of AI as deeply worrying and are looking for bans on weapons that could act autonomously. In June 2018, Google was known to have been forced to abandon a contract to supply AI-infused image reading software to the Air Force after employee protests. With innovative innovations emerging among consumer tech companies and other countries rushing to use AI in their military, the Pentagon is committed to attracting tech companies and talent.
Some companies like Anduril are only too happy to help. The company, which is also developing a virtual reality platform for monitoring the US border with Mexico, wants to shake up the defense industry with a playbook borrowed from Silicon Valley. Instead of waiting for instructions from the Pentagon, it develops products in-house that it then plans to sell to the military. It also aims to militarize consumer technologies such as AI and VR and develop prototypes faster and more cheaply.
Anduril was founded by Luckey and several veterans of Palantir, who sold analytics software to the intelligence industry and filed for an initial public offering worth $ 20 billion last month. Both Anduril and Palantir are endorsed by Peter Thiel, a well-known technology investor and Trump advisor.
Drones are also part of a deepening technological conflict between the US and China. Members of Congress have proposed laws banning government agencies from using Chinese-made consumer drones, and last month the Trump administration named five U.S. consumer drone companies as approved government suppliers. Last week, China banned the export of various types of components for drones. According to Luckey, all components used in Anduril’s technology are manufactured in either the United States or related countries, or can be replaced with such.
Luckey says the company is one step ahead of most in the U.S. military too. “We usually build things that the government wants but doesn’t necessarily believe can be built,” he says. “If we believe that something can exist, we can just do it as quickly as possible.”
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