Building Skynet

A major part of the Air Force’s efforts toward the “Third Offset” of technologies will be in the realm of autonomous machines, service Chief Scientist Greg Zacharias said Tuesday. Speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute event in Arlington, Va., Zacharias said this area of research encompasses everything from “big data” to self-directed flying machines and a range of tools—such as the F-35’s helmet—to “help humans make better decisions faster.” The first big roadmap to this effort was released by his predecessor, Mica Endsley, with the 2015 report “Autonomous Horizons,” and Zacharias said he expects Volume II to be released late this summer and yet a third volume in 2017. A practical demonstration of one aspect of autonomy will be the “loyal wingman” concept of an unmanned vehicle flying cooperatively with a manned aircraft: the request for information to industry for concepts is “out now,” Zacharias told reporters, and he expects a demonstration in the 2020-2021 time period. Asked if people should be worried about “Terminator” gun-wielding robots, Zacharias said “we’re far away” from such devices but “it’s always a concern. I don’t want to downgrade it.” He added that the Pentagon is “very sensitive” to these concerns and is codifying rules to ensure human control of weapons release. But, “I think most of the benefits” of autonomy “will be in the non-killer applications, … decision aids, and ways to leverage people’s intelligence.” (See also: Rise of the Machines from the April issue of Air Force Magazine.)