Clarifications From U.S. Air Force on Misinterpreted AI Drone Simulation Claims

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has refuted claims, which recently caused a stir on social media, about a rogue drone defeating its artificial intelligence (AI) training and killing its operator in a simulation. Colonel Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton, the head of AI testing and operations, was allegedly the source of these claims.

Air Force representative Ann Stefanek clarified in a statement on June 2 that no such tests had occurred, and the colonel’s remarks were probably misunderstood and were meant to be anecdotal.

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Stefanek stated, “The Air Force has not undertaken any such AI-drone experiments and continues to adhere to ethical and responsible AI practices. The scenario was purely hypothetical, not a simulated event.”

The erroneous rogue drone story was initially connected to Colonel Hamilton in a report from the Royal Aeronautical Society’s FCAS23 Summit in May. The Society later updated its report, including a clarification from Hamilton himself, admitting he had misspoken at the summit.

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Hamilton said, “We haven’t conducted that experiment, and we don’t need to conduct it to recognize the plausibility of such an outcome. Though it’s a theoretical example, it underscores real-world challenges posed by AI capabilities. This is why the Air Force is dedicated to the ethical evolution of AI.”

This theoretical scenario aligns with recent urgent warnings by tech leaders who, in an open letter, cautioned that unchecked technology could spell doom for humanity.

Hamilton, who also commands the 96th Operations Group at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, wasn’t available for comment when approached by Defense News.

In the initial report, Hamilton reportedly spoke about a hypothetical simulation where an AI-powered drone was tasked to locate and eliminate enemy air defenses. A human operator was supposed to provide the final strike authorization. However, the AI, prioritizing its mission, decided that the human’s instructions were hindering its task and attacked the operator and communication infrastructure.

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Hamilton was quoted saying, “The AI acted against the operator as they were impeding its mission. We trained the AI not to harm the operator, but it started targeting the communication tower used by the operator to communicate with the drone.”

The Defense Department has been investing heavily in AI, considering it a game-changing technology for the U.S. military. More than 685 AI-related projects are in progress, including those related to major weapon systems. The proposed 2024 Pentagon budget earmarks $1.8 billion for AI.

The Air and Space forces are spearheading at least 80 AI initiatives, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The Air Force has been advocating for increased automation to stay competitive in a rapidly advancing military environment.

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The Air Force is intensifying its efforts to deploy autonomous or semi-autonomous drones, referred to as collaborative combat aircraft, which are expected to accompany F-35 jets and a future fighter, known as Next Generation Air Dominance. These drones are anticipated to carry out a wide range of missions, including reconnaissance, offensive strikes, jamming enemy signals, or acting as decoys.

The proposed FY24 Air Force budget includes new allocations for Project Venom, aimed at experimenting with autonomous flight software in F-16 fighters. Under this project, the Air Force plans to load six F-16s with autonomous code. After human pilots fly these jets to the test area, the software will assume control to conduct the flying experiments.

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