Ukraine brings AI weapons to front lines

In a field on the outskirts of Kyiv, the founders of Vyriy, a Ukrainian drone company, were recently at work on a weapon of the future.

To demonstrate it, Oleksii Babenko, 25, Vyriy’s chief executive, hopped on his motorcycle and rode down a dirt path. Behind him, a drone followed, as a colleague tracked the movements from a briefcase-size computer.

Until recently, a human would have piloted the quadcopter. No longer. Instead, after the drone locked onto its target – Mr. Babenko – it flew itself, guided by software that used the machine’s camera to track him.

The motorcycle’s growling engine was no match for the silent drone as it stalked Mr. Babenko. “Push, push more. Pedal to the metal, man,” his colleagues called out over a walkie-talkie as the drone swooped toward him. “You’re screwed, screwed!”

If the drone had been armed with explosives, and if his colleagues hadn’t disengaged the autonomous tracking, Mr. Babenko would have been a goner.

Vyriy is just one of many Ukrainian companies working on a major leap forward in the weaponization of consumer technology, driven by the war with Russia. The pressure to outthink the enemy, along with huge flows of investment, donations and government contracts, has turned Ukraine into a Silicon Valley for autonomous drones and other weaponry.

What the companies are creating is technology that makes human judgment about targeting and firing increasingly tangential. The widespread availability of off-the-shelf devices, easy-to-design software, powerful automation algorithms and specialized artificial intelligence microchips has pushed a deadly innovation race into uncharted territory, fueling a potential new era of killer robots.

The most advanced versions of the technology that allows drones and other machines to act autonomously have been made possible by deep learning, a form of A.I. that uses large amounts of data to identify patterns and make decisions. Deep learning has helped generate popular large language models, like OpenAI’s GPT-4, but it also helps make models interpret and respond in real time to video and camera footage. That means software that once helped a drone follow a snowboarder down a mountain can now become a deadly tool.

In more than a dozen interviews with Ukrainian entrepreneurs, engineers and military units, a picture emerged of a near future when swarms of self-guided drones can coordinate attacks and machine guns with computer vision can automatically shoot down soldiers.

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New York Times