ACE (Air Combat Evolution) is a DARPA video game of sorts, but the American research agency plans to make it all real by the end of 2021. The program started last year and is currently in Phase 1, which calls for the AI to engage in virtual dogfights with opponents.
In August 2020, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) was tasked with conducting the so-called AlphaDogfight trials, pitting eight simulated, AI-controlled F-16s against one another in 1-v-1 aerial skirmishes. The AI that emerged victorious was then told to fight “an experienced F-16 fighter pilot in a simulator,” and the computer beat the human five times in a row.
In February this year, DARPA heated things up a notch by going for 2-v-1 teaming combat, simulating engagements of two F16s working together to bring down a single enemy F16. The system had to rely on more weapons this time, including simulated gun and missiles.
Sci-fi movie fans might recall the 2015 movie Stealth, which pitted human pilots against jets controlled by artificial intelligences.
DARPA is quite willing to go that far, yet:
Unlike the F/A-37 Talon plane in the movie Stealth, the AI will not be solely in control of the airplane; a pilot will also be on deck, in the designated seat. Still, ACE’s goal is to allow the AI to automatically conduct combat maneuvers while the pilot is otherwise occupied handling “higher-cognitive battle [...] decisions.”
Always helpful, science fiction authors are happy to meet DARPA halfway. In his excellent 1999 novel Starfish, Peter Watts presents the idea of a smart gel, made of cultured human neurons:
"It's one of those smart gels," Ray said at last... "Head cheese. Cultured brains on a slab. The same things they've been plugging into the Net to firewall infections."
(Read more about smart gels)