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.
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