A fleet of robot ships bobs gently in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, somewhere between Bahrain and Qatar, maybe 100 miles off the coast of Iran. I am on the nearby deck of a US Coast Guard speedboat, squinting off what I understand is the port side. On this morning in early December 2022, the horizon is dotted with oil tankers and cargo ships and tiny fishing dhows, all shimmering in the heat. As the speedboat zips around the robot fleet, I long for a parasol, or even a cloud.
The robots do not share my pathetic human need for shade, nor do they require any other biological amenities. This is evident in their design. A few resemble typical patrol boats like the one I’m on, but most are smaller, leaner, lower to 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 have mustered here for an exercise run by Task Force 59, a group within the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Its focus is robotics and artificial intelligence, two rapidly evolving technologies shaping the future of war. Task Force 59’s mission is to swiftly integrate them into naval operations, which it does by acquiring the latest off-the-shelf tech from private contractors and putting the pieces together into a coherent whole. The exercise in the Gulf has brought together more than a dozen uncrewed platforms—surface vessels, submersibles, aerial drones. They are to be Task Force 59’s distributed eyes and ears: They will watch the ocean’s surface with cameras and radar, listen beneath the water with hydrophones, and run the data they collect through pattern-matching algorithms that sort the oil tankers from the smugglers.
A fellow human on the speedboat draws my attention to one of the surfboard-style vessels. It abruptly folds its sail down, like a switchblade, and slips beneath the swell. Called a Triton, it can be programmed to do this when its systems sense danger. It seems to me that this disappearing act could prove handy in the real world: A couple of months before this exercise, an Iranian warship seized two autonomous vessels, called Saildrones, which can’t submerge. The Navy had to intervene to get them back.
The Triton could stay down for as long as five days, resurfacing when the coast is clear to charge its batteries and phone home. Fortunately, my speedboat won’t be hanging around that long. It fires up its engine and roars back to the docking bay of a 150-foot-long Coast Guard cutter. I head straight for the upper deck, where I know there’s a stack of bottled water beneath an awning. I size up the heavy machine guns and mortars pointed out to sea as I pass.
The deck cools in the wind as the cutter heads back to base in Manama, Bahrain. During the journey, I fall into conversation with the crew. I’m eager to talk with them about the war in Ukraine and the heavy use of drones there, from hobbyist quadcopters equipped with hand grenades to full-on military systems. I want to ask them about a recent attack on the Russian-occupied naval base in Sevastopol, which involved a number of Ukrainian-built drone boats bearing explosives—and a public crowdfunding campaign to build more. But these conversations will not be possible, says my chaperone, a reservist from 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’ll put artists out of a job, about how civilian society seems to be reaching its own inflection point with artificial intelligence. In truth, we don’t know the half of it yet. It has been just a day since OpenAI launched ChatGPT 504, the conversational interface that would break the internet.