ALPHA vs. The Pro – Judgement Day

Firstly, let’s set the mood. I need you to watch this video.

Go on. Stop what you’re doing and press play. I can wait…

Done? How good was that, right? RIGHT?! Mmmhmm, I knew you’d like it.

Now, onto ALPHA…

I’ll set the scene.

Imagine it’s the mid-eighties. Your name is Dr Myles Dyson and you’ve just invented the neural-net processor. You see your invention as a massive success, a gift to humanity, a major stepping stone across the treacherous waters toward world peace.

… and then Sarah Connor shoots you.


That’s Cyberdyne. This is Psibernetix. My bad. I’ll start again.

University of Cincinnati doctoral graduate Nick Ernest may not have built the neural-net processor (thankfully), but he’s definitely created something on that level. Ernest and his team at Psibernetix have created ALPHA, an AI set to be the ultimate wingman of the sky(net)… which runs on a Raspberry Pi.

Exciting, yes? Let me explain…

ALPHA is an artificial intelligence with the capability to out-manoeuvre even the most seasoned fighter pilot pro, and to prove this, ALPHA was introduced to retired U.S. Air Force pilot Col. Gene Lee in a head-to-head dogfight simulation.

When pitted against Col. Gene Lee, who now works as an instructor and Air Battle Manager for the U.S. Air Force, ALPHA repeatedly shot down the pro, never allowing Lee to get a single shot in.

“I was surprised at how aware and reactive it was. It seemed to be aware of my intentions, and reacting instantly to my changes in flight and missile deployment. It knew how to defeat the shot I was taking. It moved instantly between defensive and offensive actions as needed.”

Before ALPHA, pilots training with simulated missions against AIs would often be able to ‘trick’ the system, understanding the limitations of the technology involved to win over their virtual opponents. However, with ALPHA this was simply not the case, instead leaving Lee exhausted and thoroughly defeated by the simulations.

“I go home feeling washed out. I’m tired, drained, and mentally exhausted. This may be artificial intelligence, but it represents a real challenge.”

Prior to their work alongside Col. Gene Lee, ALPHA was set up against the current AI resources used for training manned and unmanned teams as part of the Air Force research programme. Much like its sessions with Lee, ALPHA outperformed the existing programmes, repeatedly beating the AIs in various situations.

ALPHA vs. Gene Lee

Nick Ernest, David Carroll, and Gene Lee vs. ALPHA

In the long term, ALPHA looks set to continue to advance in the field with additional development options, such as aerodynamic and sensor models, in the works. The aim is for ALPHA to work as an AI wingman for existing pilots. With current pilots hitting speeds of 1,500 miles per hour at altitudes thousands of feet in the air, ALPHA can provide response times that beat their human counterparts by miles; this would allow for Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) to defend pilots against hostile attack in the skies, while learning from enemy action.

This ability to run ALPHA on such a low-budget PC makes the possibility of using the AI in the field all that more achievable. As confirmed by Ernest himself (we emailed him to check), the AI and its algorithms can react to the simulated flight’s events, and eventually real-life situations, with ease, using the processing power of a $35 computer. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is incredible.

tom cruise top gun

This blog post was bought to you by the 1980s*. You’re most welcome.

*Yes, we know Terminator 2 was released in 1991. Give us some slack.


Lorna Lynch avatar

It’s time to buzz the tower…

Liz Upton avatar

Tower, this is Ghost Rider requesting a flyby.

Daniel Llewellyn avatar

Err, negative, ghost rider, the paddock is full.

Alex Bate avatar

It’s time I came clean.

I’ve never seen Top Gun.

Liz Upton avatar

Please clear your desk. You will find cardboard boxes in the hopper by the door.

Alex Bate avatar

Liz Upton avatar

Emma is standing over my shoulder, saying: “That’s not alright.”

Laura Clay avatar

This is a travesty. I shall be mailing a copy from Pi Towers North immediately.

AndrewS avatar

Great post Alex :-) Looks like you’re fitting well into PiTowers.

Tiny typo “world piece” btw.

Alex Bate avatar

Don’t blame me, blame my proof readers :D

Andrew Oakley avatar

Where were you, when our drone was on fire, eh?

Simon Long avatar

That video reminds me of something that has bugged me for years. Why is the Millennium Falcon invariably able to defeat TIE fighters in a dogfight, in spite of being several times their size? Which it usually does by flying into an incredibly narrow space where said TIE fighters crash into the walls, while the MUCH BIGGER (and by extension less manoeuvrable) Falcon always just turns to exactly the right angle to allow it to fly through the conveniently-shaped hole? It’s not exactly believable, is it…?

Liz Upton avatar

THE FORCE, Simon. Sheesh.

Jamie Whitehorn avatar

I think you mean the PhORCE, Liz :)

Alex Bate avatar

You’re right, Simon. It’s the only unbelievable part of an otherwise factually sound trilogy.

AndrewS avatar


Asa Shettle avatar

Unfortunately, that’s not true. There were many flaws with star wars but probably the biggest one was that, in space, there was fire when the various spacecraft got blown to pieces. This is impossible. YOU CANNOT CATCH FIRE IN VOID. You just can’t because there is no oxygen in VOID. Unless the fuel they used was comprised of oxygen. But that’s what we make ours out of and we can’t go in hyperspace, or even the insane speeds that they can. So honestly I’d take the improbability of the whole millennium falcon acrobatics thing over the IMPOSSIBILITY OF FIRE IN SPACE!!!

davef21370 avatar

Not only that, but it lacks the aerodynamics and adjustable flight surfaces to fly within an atmosphere and with no apparent boosters it couldn’t steer in space, let alone through a barn door. I don’t think Star Wars was real ;)

gtechn avatar

I can’t play it. It says, “This video contains content from SME who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.” I live in the USA.

Alex Bate avatar

I’ve *hopefully* updated this. Give it a go.

Liz Upton avatar

Hum “Dangerzone” while you’re reading the blog post and imagine tie fighters. You’ll be 90% of the way there *just using the power of your mind*.

(You’re also getting a lovely sort of cultural exchange thing going: the “This video contains…” dialogue is something that those of us in Europe see so often it’s burned into our retinas.)

Asa Shettle avatar

I do too but I wasn’t getting those warnings.

Leo White avatar

Will a dogfighting challenge now be add to the Pi Wars 3.0 lineup? :)

James Carroll avatar

I would love a really great simulator for the Pi. I imagine the code for this is proprietary.

Elfen avatar

I would like see how well this will do against me in a Foker Dr1.

W. H. Heydt avatar

The “ALPHA as the wingman” makes me reflect on the May crash of a Tesla by going under a truck trailer while running on autopilot and the driver speeding and not paying attention. One wonders what sort of idiot ways to die some pilot will discover…

Dennis avatar

That’s easy and without an AI.

Inverted, low altitude flight. “Hill approaching, pull up,” he thinks to himself. Oops

Stanislav Petrov avatar

unfortunately autopilot / AI cant think (twice about things on our behalf)

richard avatar

What I get from this is that it is not Cyberdyne that was the genesis of the terminator but the raspberry pi foundation and some boffings.

How do dogs react to Eben??? ;)

Liz Upton avatar

Badly. Mostly because he is covered with cat hair.

Imsensible avatar

Have you been giving him those cat hormones again?

AndrewS avatar

Jason Statham to star in the next Terminator sequel?

Fester Bestertester avatar

Never mind the instantaneous reaction. This, I take it, is action as one individual in control of one vehicle. What I’d love to see is an array of these interacting and reacting to the vagaries and chaotic variability of governing Society. It would take a whole array of bureaucrats out of ineffectual positions and more effectively and honestly inform political and legal “powers that be”. Bye-bye corruption and (pertinent to my situation) Institutional abuse! :)

Doug avatar

In this case the simulation was of a numerically superior force with inferior weaponry and Intel (red team, 4 aircraft, Alpha, no intel), facing a numericaly superior force with better weaponry and intel (Blue team, 2 aircraft, Human, simulated AWACs intel).

The red team won everytime.

Milliways avatar

It doesn’t inspire confidence when a past about “artificial intelligence” can’t get basic English spelling correct.

Simon Long avatar

Or, indeed, when a post correcting someone’s spelling can’t get the spelling of “post” correct… ;)

Yvan T. avatar

artificial intelligence or Human intelligence…

It all boils down to success or failure.

AI don’t care about the outcome either way.

Human DO!

Fester Bestertester avatar

Star Wars, Tesla, Government (read my previous post) … It all boils down to AI being an excellent _advisor_, but decidedly _not_ a replacement (yet :) ).

Fester Bestertester avatar

… and Doug, which team was “numerically superior”? They can’t both have been!:)

Silviu avatar

They should put ALPHA to fight itself (in a simulator or/and two mini drones) – then they will discover possible glitches and improove it… or did they do that already ?
Some of the glitches could be fun to watch (crash into each other to complete the objective ?)

Cpt James Purcell avatar

I’m sorry, but I have just alerted the resistance and they will be around soon,

Kill, maim, burn!

I don’t trust Ai’s

Steve Breve avatar

“You’re name is Dr Myles Dyson”
“You are name is Dr Myles Dyson”

Please fix this.

Ben Nuttall avatar


Fritz Katze avatar

I still hope that I got this article wrong.

So as all computers the Raspberry Pi can be abused to build weapons or train people to use them. Great accomplishment. See children, if you strive to work in arms industry then the Pi is the way to go.

I guess most engineers will come at least once to a point in their career where they have to decide how close their entanglement with the development of weapons will get.

Working in the arms industry can be very attractive not only because of material rewards but because of the very interesting challenges. Been there, done that – after all didn’t like it.

Liz Upton avatar

Know what’s dangerous? Forks. Stick a fork in someone’s eye, and that eye won’t work any more.

A spoon in the wrong hands can be DEADLY.

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