Chinese scientists claimed that they were able to conduct a “landmark experiment” by allowing an artificial intelligence (AI) machine to take full control of a satellite temporarily in near-Earth orbit to test its behaviour in space.
Qimingxing-1, a small Earth observation satellite, was controlled by the AI for 24 hours, and it functioned without any human order, assignment or intervention, a paper published in the journal Geomatics and Information Science of Wuhan University stated.
Notably, the AI spotted a few places on Earth and ordered the satellite to “take a closer look”.
One of the targeted areas was the Patna city in India housing the Bihar Regiment – the Indian Army unit that clashed with Chinese forces in the Galwan Valley in 2020.
The other targeted area was Osaka, one of Japan’s busiest ports, which occasionally hosts US Navy vessels operating in the Pacific.
The scientists, however, did not explain why the AI machine made the satellite to specifically look for these two locations.
The research team, led by Wang Mi from the university’s State Key Laboratory of Information Engineering in Surveying, Mapping and Remote Sensing, claimed that the aim of the experiment was to see what the AI would do of its own accord, reports South China Morning Post.
“This approach breaks the existing rules in mission planning,” said Wang and his colleagues in their paper published on April 3.
The research team was surprised by how AI could manage to order the satellite in space which has always been operated based on specific orders or assignments.
Usually, satellites are given assignments during unexpected events, such as war or an earthquake, to make long-term observations of particular targets.
Though AI has been prominently used in space programs, such as image recognition, drawing flight paths and collision avoidance, this is the first that it was given control of a satellite, resulting in a waste of time and resources, the team noted.
“The satellites are expensive with a limited lifespan. It is urgent to make the most out of their value with new orbital applications,” the researchers said.