A fleet of robotic ships bob gently in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, somewhere between Bahrain and Qatar, perhaps 100 miles off the coast of Iran. I stand on the nearby deck of a US Coast Guard speedboat and peer at what I understand is the port side. On this morning in early December 2022, the horizon is dotted with oil tankers and freighters and small fishing dhows, all shimmering in the heat. As the speedboat whizzes around the robot fleet, I long for an umbrella, or even a cloud.
The robots don’t share my pathetic human need for shade, nor do they need other biological amenities. This is reflected in their design. A few resemble typical patrol boats like the one I’m on, but most are smaller, slimmer and lower on the water. One looks like a solar-powered kayak. Another looks like a surfboard with a metal sail. Yet another reminds me of a Google Street View car on pontoons.
These machines were collected here for an exercise by Task Force 59, a group within the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The focus is on robotics and artificial intelligence, two rapidly evolving technologies shaping the future of war. Task Force 59’s mission is to quickly integrate them into naval operations, which it does by acquiring the latest off-the-shelf technology from private contractors and putting the pieces together into a cohesive whole. The exercise in the Gulf has brought together more than a dozen unmanned platforms: surface craft, submarines, aerial drones. They will be Task Force 59’s distributed eyes and ears: they will watch the ocean surface with cameras and radar, listen underwater with hydrophones, and run the data they collect through pattern-matching algorithms that separate the oil tankers from the smugglers.
A fellow man on the speedboat draws my attention to one of the surfboard-like vessels. It abruptly folds its sail down, like a stiletto, and glides under the swell. Called a Triton, it can be programmed to do so when its systems detect danger. It seems to me that this vanishing act could be useful in the real world: A few months before this exercise, an Iranian warship seized two autonomous vessels called Saildrones, which cannot submerge. The Navy had to step in to get them back.
The Triton can lie down for as long as five days and resurface when the coast is clear to recharge its batteries and call home. Luckily my speedboat doesn’t hang around that long. It fires up its engine and roars back to the berth of a 150-foot (45 m) Coast Guard cutter. I head straight for the top deck, where I know there’s a stack of bottled water under an awning. I watch the heavy machine guns and mortars pointing out to sea as I pass.
The deck cools in the wind as the cutter returns to base in Manama, Bahrain. During the trip I get into a conversation with the crew. I can’t wait to talk to them about the war in Ukraine and the heavy use of drones there, from hobbyist quadcopters equipped with hand grenades to full-fledged military systems. I want to ask them about a recent attack on the Russian-occupied Sevastopol naval base involving a number of Ukrainian-built drone boats carrying explosives – and a public crowdfunding campaign to build more. But those conversations will not be possible, says my supervisor, a reservist of the social media company Snap. Because the Fifth Fleet operates in a different region, those on Task Force 59 don’t have much information about what’s going on in Ukraine, she says. Instead, we talk about AI image generators and whether they will put artists out of work, about how civil society seems to be reaching its own tipping point with artificial intelligence. Actually, we don’t know half yet. It’s only been a day since OpenAI launched ChatGPT 504, the conversational interface that would break the internet.