AI-powered super soldiers are not just a dream

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The day is slowly turning into night, and the American special operators are growing concerned. They’ve been deployed to a densely populated urban center in a politically unstable region, and local activity has increased sharply in recent days, with streets and markets far more bustling than the usual bustle of city life. Intelligence suggests the threat in the city is high, but specifics are unclear, and the team needs to maintain a low profile – a shootout could bring known hostile elements upon them. To assess the potential threats, the Americans decide to take a more cautious approach. Forgoing typical tactical gear in favor of blending in with potential crowds, an operator heads out onto the neighborhood’s main street to see what he can see.

With the click of a button, everything is visible to the Operator. A complex set of sensors mounted on his head-up display begins gathering information from the world around him. Body language, heart rate, facial expressions and even snippets of conversation in local dialects are rapidly collected and routed through his backpack supercomputer for processing with the help of an onboard artificial intelligence engine. The information is instantly analysed, streamlined and sent back to the head-up display. The assessment of the Operator’s tactical AI sidekick comes through clearly: a series of seasonal events are approaching the city, and most passers-by are excited and jovial, presenting minimal threat to the team. Crisis averted – for now.

It’s just one of many possible scenarios repeatedly presented by Defense Department officials in recent years when discussing the future of U.S. special operations forces, those elite soldiers tasked with confronting the world’s most complex threats as the “tip of the spear” of the U.S. military. Both defense officials and science-fiction writers may have imagined a future of warfare shaped by brain implants and performance-enhancing drugs or, more simply, suits of powerful armor. Starship TroopersBut according to US Special Operations Command, the next generation of armed conflict will be fought (and, hopefully, won) with a relatively simple concept: the “hyper enabled operator.”

More brains, less brawn

First introduced to the public in 2019 in an essay by SOCOM’s Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) officials for the Small Wars Journal, the Hyper-Enabled Operator (HEO) concept is a successor program to the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) effort, begun in 2013, aimed at equipping U.S. special operations forces with so-called “Iron Man” suits. Inspired by the 2012 death of a Navy SEAL during a hostage rescue operation in Afghanistan, TALOS was intended to improve operators’ survivability in combat by making them virtually immune to small arms fire through additional layers of sophisticated armor,

The main objective of the HEO concept is straightforward: give warfighters on the battlefield “cognitive overmatch,” or “the ability to dominate a situation by making informed decisions faster than the opponent,” as SOCOM officials put it. Instead of providing U.S. special operations forces with a physical advantage through next-generation body armor and exotic weapons, operators of the future will go into battle armed with technologies designed to enhance their situation awareness and contextual decision-making to a superior level. Former fighter pilot and Air Force colonel John Boyd proposed the “OODA loop” (observe, orient, decide, act) as the core military decision-making model of the 21st century; the HEO concept seeks to use technology to “tighten” that loop so much that operators can literally make smarter and faster decisions than the enemy.

“The goal of HEO,” as SOCOM officials stated in 2019, “is to get the right information to the right person at the right time.”

To achieve this goal, the powered armor at the center of the TALOS effort in the HEO concept needs to be replaced with a robust sensor suit built on sophisticated communications equipment and advanced computing architecture, allowing the operator to vacuum up relevant data and turn it into actionable information through a simple interface like a heads-up display – and do so “at the edge” in places where traditional communications networks may not be available. If TALOS was seen as an “Iron Man” suit, as I noted earlier, then HEO is essentially JARVIS, Tony Stark’s built-in AI assistant who is constantly feeding him information through his helmet’s heads-up display.

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