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On August 20, 2020, two fighter pilots, ‘Heron’ and ‘Banger’, in their F-16 fighter jets locked heads at 7,000 feet above ground to fight the most exciting air battle ever witnessed by the world. Banger, an experienced pilot, faced a novice, Heron, who was fighting the first-ever battle of his life. The two fighters take the position. Heron nosedives, makes the first manoeuvre, Banger chases. Heron rolls up the jet, aggressively going uphill, and takes the shot. Banger, a human, is dead; Heron, an AI, wins the battle. The battle between the human and the AI was real, except it was on metaverse.
The experiment using Deepmind’s AI technology was part of the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. The project aimed to explore how AI and machine learning may help automate various aspects of air-to-air combat.
‘Blue Shark’, ‘Project Avengers’ and ‘AI Dogfighting’, which sound like titles of Marvel movies, are some of the billion-dollar metaverse projects of the US army. The metaverse project of the US army is believed to be much bigger than Meta’s metaverse.
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Military Metaverse: A buzzword or sensible term
The word metaverse gained popularity after Mark Zukerberg made an announcement of launching the virtual reality space that diminishes the line between virtual and reality. In the metaverse space, digital representation of people, called ‘avatars’, can interact with each other like the real world. They can attend meetings in their offices, go to concerts and even try on clothes.
This virtual reality world is powered by VR headsets, called Oculus VR in Meta’s case. Meta’s metaverse is called Horizon Workrooms, an app that allows Oculus users to enter virtual offices and hold meetings.
Far from the spotlight, the US military has been building the technology in collaboration with different companies such as Microsoft, Red 6 and Anduril, among others. These companies are building sophisticated VR gears which can be worn on the battlefield.
We heard about metaverse in 2021, but the US army has been developing synthetic training environments (STE) since 2017. The synthetic training environment provides accessible representations of any part of the globe, integrating the complexities of the operational environment and battlefield. It’s akin to creating a digital twin of the Earth with real-world accuracy. The technology is very close to commercial metaverses and involves VR/XR/VR.
“While we don’t know the timeline for commercial metaverses, the US Army has a clear schedule for STE and is actively funding prototypes to achieve its vision. If the US Army STE is successful, they will be the first to clearly demonstrate that the metaverse is not purely science fiction or marketing from big tech. It will be a real, shared experience delivering tangible benefits”, said Pete Morrison, CCO at Bohemia Interactive Simulations.
The Marvel movie-like name ‘Project Avenger’ is the virtual training project of the US Navy. The project is designed to train fighter jet pilots in a dynamic and fluid environment that produces a more capable, self-sufficient aviator, which increases fleet naval aviator readiness.
“Project Avenger is revolutionizing Naval Aviation undergraduate primary flight training”, said Rear Adm. Robert Westendorff, chief of Naval Air Training, in a recent news release. “Our innovative team developed, refined and implemented the program and this first class of primary completers is a testament to the entire team’s hard work and dedication.”
AI: With great power comes great threat
In this process of training on computers, AI is developing unique insights that will turn it into a killing machine.
Shane Legg, Mustafa Suleyman, and Demis Hassabis, founders of Deepmind, an Alphabet company, have already warned of such threats and urged the world’s governments to ban work on lethal AI weapons. It was Deepmind’s technology that was used to give intelligence to the fighter jet that fought and won against the human pilot.
According to the founders, the business does not want anyone to be killed with its technology. On the other hand, making research and source code available for others to build upon advances the area of AI. However, it also makes it possible for others to utilise and modify the code for their own needs.
While the company is warning governments against the use of AI in weapons, the US and other nations are hurrying to do so. According to some analysts, it would be challenging to stop countries from moving toward complete autonomy. It might also be difficult for AI researchers to strike a balance between open scientific research ideals and potential military applications for their concepts and programmes.