Aggressive ‘Top Gun’ AI outguns veteran pilot in combat simulator

27 Jun 2016

A recently-developed AI program dubbed ALPHA is being described as the most aggressive and responsive flight simulator to-date, having outwitted a veteran fighter pilot with thousands of hours of flight experience.

Since the 1980s, a fighter pilot’s first experience of flying a plane has typically been in the confines of a computer combat simulator that would teach them the hazards of in-flight combat without fears of any causalities.

In 2016, this method remains ever-present and more important than ever, with programmers and researchers regularly updating a simulator’s AI to help it prove more of a challenge to skilled human pilots. Now it seems those pilots have finally met their match.

Future Human

100pc success rate against human opponent

A University of Cincinnati (UC) graduate, Nick Ernest, has developed his own AI – dubbed ALPHA – as part of his own start-up, Psibernetix, with aims of making it a research tool for crewed and uncrewed teaming in a simulation environment.

Having wiped the floor with other AIs earlier last year, a newer version of ALPHA has been pitted against retired United States Air Force Colonel Gene Lee, who has been besting combat simulator AIs since the 1980s.

During this simulation, Lee was shocked to find that not only was he not able to kill ALPHA once in the simulation, but he was shot down in every single engagement.

ALPHA testing

Retired United States Air Force Colonel Gene Lee pitting himself against ALPHA. Image via Lisa Ventre/University of Cincinnati

‘Most aggressive AI I’ve seen to date’

In describing how he found competing with ALPHA, Lee said it was “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible AI I’ve seen to date”, with the AI going on to defeat a number of other human challengers even when its capabilities had been handicapped.

Lee went on to say that he was “surprised at how aware and reactive it was. It seemed to be aware of my intentions and reacting instantly to my changes in flight and my missile deployment.

“It knew how to defeat the shot I was taking. It moved instantly between defensive and offensive actions as needed.”

Facing physical exhaustion following each session with ALPHA, Lee described it as a “real challenge” to any human pilot out there in an aerial combat situation.


Side-view of ALPHA during active combat. Image via Psibernetix

Ruthless and efficient wingman

Thankfully, at least for US Air Force pilots, the intention is for ALPHA to act as the pilot’s wingman – like Goose is to Maverick in Top Gun – pairing an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) with a piloted aircraft.

Given the incredible speeds at which fighter aircraft travel, ALPHA will act as the pilot’s rapid response, coordinating the best tactical plan and precise responses over 250 times faster than ALPHA’s human opponents could blink.

Psibernetix now plans to develop ALPHA even further by testing it against more human pilots to help teach it everything it needs to know to be ruthlessly efficient in the skies.

Is anyone else terrified?

Fighter pilot image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic