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China develops AI to design hypersonic missiles

Researchers say human brains are too slow for building insanely fast missiles

Artist's rendition of Glide Phase Interceptor. (Raytheon Technologies photo)

Artist's rendition of Glide Phase Interceptor. (Raytheon Technologies photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — China has created an artificial intelligence system that autonomously recognizes shock waves in wind tunnel tests used to design hypersonic missiles, according to results published by a team of Chinese researchers this month.

A lead researcher on the team said human brains are falling behind at the pace hypersonics are advancing, per the South China Morning Post. Rather than having scientists gradually pore over photos produced by flight simulations to uncover clues on how to improve the missile, Le’s team deployed an AI to speedily label shock waves by location, brightness, color, and other traits.

Wind tunnel tests produce thousands of images per second, which must then be analyzed on a pixel-by-pixel basis.

In one test, the researchers said the AI recognized the shock waves with 85% more accuracy than a human. It took only nine seconds for it to process the image on a regular graphics card.

The team claims the AI developed its own knowledge base from the images and required no human intervention to match patterns and train itself. The system uses “unsupervised segmentation” — a computer vision technique by which AIs decode images purely by their graphics without relying on added labels in the metadata.

This AI-powered approach could enable China to accelerate its hypersonic missile programs, which could give its military a new edge in its ongoing geopolitical competition with the U.S.

Earlier this month, Chinese researchers claimed they had developed a microwave machine that emits a pulse so strong it could potentially jam or destroy satellites in space. Although China denies the machine is a directed energy weapon (DEW), a Beijing-based space scientist anonymously told the media it could function as a high-powered weapon, saying its power was “overwhelming just to think about.”

Alarm over China’s capacity spiked after it tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through low-orbit space in August last year, which some in Washington likened to a “new Sputnik moment.” Having fallen behind both China and Russia in this arena, the U.S. recently responded by rushing to install hypersonic missiles on its own warships.

In November last year, Raytheon Technologies, a leading U.S. arms maker, was chosen by the country's Missile Defense Agency to assist in an effort to build and test the first interceptor specifically designed to defeat hypersonic threats — the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI).

Yet not everyone in U.S. defense is convinced about hypersonics. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, for example, has questioned their relevance to U.S. strategy and whether the expensive technology is worth the money. “It isn’t obvious that just because China is doing hypersonics, so we should do, immediately, similar hypersonics,” Kendall said on Feb. 15.

Kendall says hypersonics are best for taking out fixed targets. The U.S., whose focus is to counter aggression by actors like Russia and China, typically needs to neutralize the moving targets that Moscow and Beijing could use to invade neighboring countries.