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Monday, February 07, 2005

The Pentagon's New Model Kit

Speaking of model airplanes (see previous entry). Picture this: you're invited to participate in a super secret experiment that involves going into hibernation for twenty years. You want to see the future now, so you accept. Soon the day comes for the experiment to begin. After arriving early at the test center, you say goodbye to loved ones, change into your jammies, then lay down for the big sleep. You close your eyes, and a short time later open them again, wondering when they're going to put you under. You look around the room for the doctors who were just there, but the room is empty and dark. After a short while, a gentle disembodied voice says, "Good morning. Welcome to 2025."

After breakfast, a shower, and a bit of briefing on recent changes in society, you get dressed and go out to greet your new world. Upon seeing it, the first words that pop into mind are, "Christ, looks like a Blade Runner / Terminator mashup. Wonder if it's too late to go back?"

The scenario is fiction - as far as I know. But the future it describes is fast becoming fact.

Meet one of the Pentagon's more recent efforts, a fully automated, robotic death jet. According to an article in Technology Review, the X-45, above, is one of two prototypes (the other being the Navy's X-47) for the device that will replace the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the magazine says is "widely regarded as the last manned fighter jet".

The essential part of this program isn't this or that robotic jet; the essential part is development of an atmospheric internet that is sufficiently efficient for command and control over the jets - while developing, at the same time, A.I. in the jets sufficient to provide them with some autonomy. As the article in TR has it,
. . .the unmanned planes will require new ways for information to change communication pathways on the fly — literally. 'We will not always have perfect communication and, in fact, will always have some form of latency,” says Paul Waugh, a DARPA deputy director of the X-47 program. 'Thus, the system, in all its parts, demands some level of autonomy, which means we will need smart platforms, smart sensors, and smart data processing.' The plane needs to think for itself, at least during the gaps. 'We recognize that we have entered perhaps the richest, deepest part of the information revolution that deals with mobile, wireless computing,' Waugh says.

The first of these robotic fighters is set to go online in ten years time. Part of a grand strategy called Future Combat Systems, the idea is to link robotic aircraft with other robotic devices such as artillery, ships, land vehicles, soldiers, and even actual humans in the field.
'The long-range vision is that the president will wake up some day and decide he doesn’t like the cut of someone’s jib and send thither infinite numbers of myrmidons — robotic warriors — and that we could wage a war in which we wouldn’t put at risk our precious skins' is how John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a leading defense policy website, puts it.

Coming soon to a planet near you. And, yes, it probably is too late to go back.

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