Enlarge / The X-62A VISTA Aircraft flying above Edwards Air Force Base, California. (credit: Kyle Brasier, U.S. Air Force)

An AI test pilot has successfully flown a jet fighter in dogfights against human opponents. It’s the latest development for DARPA’s Air Combat Evaluation program, which is trying to develop aerospace AI agents that can be trusted to perform safely.

Human test pilots have a bit of a reputation thanks to popular culture—from The Right Stuff to Top Gun: Maverick, the profession has been portrayed as a place for loose cannons with a desire to go fast and break the rules. The reality is pretty far from that these days, especially where DARPA is concerned.

The agency instead wants a machine-learning agent that can safely fly a real aircraft autonomously, with no violations of training rules. After all, neural networks have their own reputation—at this point well-earned—for finding ways to exploit situations that hadn’t occurred to humans. And the consequences when controlling a real jet fighter can be a lot more severe than just testing in silico.

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