Mar 23, 2019 I Brett Tingley

The US Air Force is Teaching ‘Skyborg’ AI Systems to Fly Its Aircraft

Remember in those literally dozens of science fiction stories where AI turned against its human creators after being armed with the most cutting edge weapons humanity possesses? Even Frankenstein, one of the most well-known horror stories of all time, is in many ways about humans reaching too high with our creation. Well, it seems nobody at the Air Force has seen or read a single one of them, because it turns out the Air Force wants to do exactly what so many tales have warned against for centuries: arm the robots.

According to a report published by, the Air Force is training AI to fly its most advanced unmanned aerial vehicles and potentially serve as assistants to human pilots in other aircraft. The system is called Skyborg, of course, and is being developed by the Air Force Research Lab to fly the XQ-58A Valkyrie stealth drone as well as the QF-16, a full-scale unmanned version of the F-16. Ultimately, the goal is to have a fully-capable AI assistant in the cockpit that can respond to natural language and even control various aircraft if Air Force pilots ever needed it to.


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Skyborg version 1.0 didn't impress Air Force brass quite like the engineers had hoped.

The Air Force wants Skyborg to work across multiple aircraft platforms and essentially be a ‘hive mind’ which can access and share the collected knowledge and data of the entire Air Force. Yeah, I know, I remember that awful movie too, and that was way back in 2005. Just think of how more advanced and terrifying the AI of today is.

Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, says the Skyborg program is all about maintaining that coveted American air superiority in the age of AI. Skyborg-equipped aircraft could theoretically react to changing battlefield conditions more quickly than a human can, deploying weapons or executing aerial maneuvers almost instantly. "Imagine having trained person after person, generation after generation … what if, once you get on the curve, what if it's exponential? And whoever gets on it first has an advantage forever?" Roper says. "I don't want China on that curve, I want us on that curve, and us accelerating ahead of the pack."

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An unmanned QF-16 used for target practice.

Roper then actually added "you can't spell Air Force without A [and] I," and presumably threw up in his own mouth from the stress of holding that joke in throughout the entire interview. He’s probably been carrying that one around inside for weeks.

Will Skyborg inevitably become Skynet, or will this pan out to be merely the Air Force’s equivalent of Alexa for the cockpit?

Brett Tingley
Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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