Did an artificial intelligence (AI) drone kill its operator in a U.S. Air Force simulated test? No, that's not true: Although a report of a conference stated that the Air Force conducted such a test, the official who gave the details later clarified that he "mis-spoke" and that the anecdote was a "thought experiment" rather than a real-world simulation.
The claim appeared in a post published on Instagram on June 2, 2023. The post featured a screenshot of an article posted on Vice's website titled "AI-Controlled Drone Goes Rogue, Kills Human Operator in USAF Simulated Test". The text above the screenshot read:
An AI-enabled drone killed its human operator in a simulated test "because that person was keeping it from accomplishing its objective."
This is how the post looked on Instagram at the time of writing:
(Source: Instagram screenshot taken on Tue Jun 6 15:32:34 2023 UTC)
The claim is the product of a mis-statement Col. Tucker Hamilton, the chief of AI test and operations for the Air Force, at the Royal Aeronautical Society's Future Combat Air & Space Capabilities Summit, held from May 23 to May 24, 2023, in London. A blog post on the Royal Aeronautical Society's website reported that during his talk, Hamilton described a simulation in which an AI drone was tasked with targeting specific threats. When the drone's human operator made decisions that the drone felt interfered with its mission, Hamilton reportedly said that the drone "killed the operator because that person was keeping it from accomplishing its objective".
However, Hamilton has since clarified the context of the anecdote. In a June 2, 2023, update to its blog post, the Royal Aeronautical Society said that it was in communication with Hamilton about the claim. The update read in part:
Col Hamilton admits he 'mis-spoke' in his presentation at the Royal Aeronautical Society FCAS Summit and the 'rogue AI drone simulation' was a hypothetical 'thought experiment' from outside the military, based on plausible scenarios and likely outcomes rather than an actual USAF real-world simulation saying: 'We've never run that experiment, nor would we need to in order to realise that this is a plausible outcome'. He clarifies that the USAF has not tested any weaponised AI in this way (real or simulated) and says 'Despite this being a hypothetical example, this illustrates the real-world challenges posed by AI-powered capability and is why the Air Force is committed to the ethical development of AI'.
Tim Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Royal Aeronautical Society's magazine AEROSPACE and one of the authors of the blog post that published Hamilton's initial statements, also took to Twitter on June 2, 2023, to publicize Hamilton's correction.
The Air Force cleared up Hamilton's statements as well. Insider published an article that included a statement from an Air Force spokesperson, Ann Stefanek. Insider reported:
'The Department of the Air Force has not conducted any such AI-drone simulations and remains committed to ethical and responsible use of AI technology,' Stefanek said. 'It appears the colonel's comments were taken out of context and were meant to be anecdotal.'
Although the Vice Motherboard article shown in the Instagram post making the claim previously did contain the headline shown in the screenshot, the article has since been updated to reflect the clarifications made by Hamilton and the Air Force. A screenshot of the article's new headline, which reads "USAF Official Says He 'Misspoke' About AI Drone Killing Human Operator in Simulated Test", is included below:
Lead Stories has debunked several claims related to AI, which can be found here.