DARPA researchers see future wars won with hypersonics and artificial intelligence

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md — In comments that conjure up dystopian images of a future dominated by robot soldiers controlled by Skynet, researchers with the Pentagon’s futuristic think tank said they are working on better ways to merge the rapid decision making of computers with the analytical capabilities of humans.

In fact, scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects agency, or DARPA, are even looking into advanced neuroscience in hopes of one day merging computerized artificial intelligence with the human brain.

“I think the future [of] warfighting is going to look a lot more like less incredibly smart people working with more incredibly smart machines,” said DARPA Deputy Director Steve Walker during a briefing with reporters at the 2016 Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference here. “And how those two things come together is going to define how we move forward.”

Personnel of the 624th Operations Center, located at Joint Base San Antonio - Lackland, conduct cyber operations in support of the command and control of Air Force network operations and the joint requirements of Air Forces Cyber, the Air Force component of U.S. Cyber Command. The 624th OC is the operational arm of the 24th Air Force, and benefits from lessons learned during exercises such as Cyber Flag 13-1. (U.S. Air Force photo by William Belcher)

Personnel of the 624th Operations Center, located at Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland, conduct cyber operations in support of the command and control of Air Force network operations and the joint requirements of Air Forces Cyber, the Air Force component of U.S. Cyber Command. The 624th OC is the operational arm of the 24th Air Force, and benefits from lessons learned during exercises such as Cyber Flag 13-1. (U.S. Air Force photo by William Belcher)

Walker said researchers are already finding ways to help machines better collaborate with human operators. Computers do a good job of spitting out answers, he explained, but people want to know how that machine arrived at its answer.

The so-called “Explainable AI” research program is geared toward helping a human operator have confidence in the answer the machine gives him.

“Machine, don’t just give me how correct you think the answer is, tell me how you got to that answer — explain to me the reasoning, the decision making you went through to get to that answer,” Walker described the thinking behind the project. “We’re creating more of a trust between the human and the machine and we’ve given them the ability to use machines where they make sense.”

While Walker sees more machines working with fewer troops on future battlefields, he doesn’t see a world where artificial intelligence takes over.

I don't think we will be fully autonomous ever,' Walker said. 'I don't think our morality and ethics would allow that. But I think highly autonomous warfighting is certainly in the future. Click To Tweet

Beyond advances in artificial intelligence, Walker said DARPA is investing a lot of research into so-called “hypersonic” technology, which describes vehicles that can fly between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

The X-51A Waverider is set to demonstrate hypersonic flight. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine, it is designed to ride on its own shockwave and accelerate to about Mach 6. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

The X-51A Waverider is set to demonstrate hypersonic flight. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine, it is designed to ride on its own shockwave and accelerate to about Mach 6. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

The Pentagon has tried various hypersonic technologies over the years, some with limited success. But DARPA is working with the Air Force to develop two weapon prototypes that Walker hopes will prove that “hypersonics will give you a much more capable, much more survivable much more effective system than we have today at some surprising ranges.”

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