The Chinese “spy” balloon that flew over American territory this week, delaying the visit of the head of American diplomacy to China, is an artificial intelligence-controlled instrument, according to an American expert.
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For William Kim, a surveillance balloon specialist at the Marathon Initiative think tank in Washington, these planes are powerful surveillance tools that are difficult to shoot down.
A “spy” balloon piloted by artificial intelligence?
While the Chinese balloon’s appearance is similar to that of a regular weather balloon, there are a few things that are different, Kim noted.
Its imposing payload, clearly visible, consists of electronic instruments for guidance and surveillance, as well as solar panels to power the whole.
According to him, this balloon could carry guidance technologies that are not yet present in the American army.
The expert explains that with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), it is now possible to pilot a balloon simply by changing altitude to reach a suitable point to find a wind that propels it to the desired destination .
Before, you either had to control it with a cable from the ground, “or you throw it and it flies where the wind takes it,” says William Kim.
“What has happened recently with the advancement of AI is that now we can have a balloon (…) that doesn’t even need its own propulsion. By simply controlling the altitude, he can control his direction,” he summarizes.
Such technology could still involve communication with their base.
What are the advantages over satellites?
According to Kim, satellites are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from land and space.
Balloons have many advantages, starting with their ability to evade radar.
“They’re made of materials that don’t reflect light, they’re not metal. So, even if they can be quite big (…) it will be difficult to spot them”.
If they are small enough, the spy devices and payloads on these planes can even go unnoticed.
Balloons also have the advantage of being able to maintain a stationary position over a target to be monitored, unlike spy satellites which must remain in orbit.
“You can fly over the same position for months,” says the expert.
Could the balloon have arrived in the United States by accident?
For William Kim, it’s a “real possibility.” The Chinese balloon actually could have been sent at the start to collect data outside of American borders or much higher before failing.
“These balloons don’t always work perfectly,” he says, noting that the Chinese device flew about 46,000 feet above the ground, compared to 65,000 to 100,000 typically required for this type of tool.
“It’s definitely a bit low (…) If the goal was to make it harder to detect and harder to shoot down, it would have made sense to send it to a higher altitude.”
Why can’t the US overthrow him?
Knocking down the ball isn’t as easy as it looks, Mr Kim warns.
“These balloons are powered by helium (…) you can’t just shoot them down and set them on fire,” like an airship, the specialist explains.
“These aren’t things that explode or rupture,” he continues. “If you pierce it, it will only be deflated very slowly.”
William Kim recalls that in 1998 the Canadian Air Force sent an F-18 fighter jet to attempt to shoot down a weather balloon believed to be rogue.
“They riddled it with a thousand rounds of 20mm bullets. And it was another six days before he came down again.”
It is not obvious to Mr. Kim whether surface-to-air missiles work against these types of balloons. Their guidance systems are indeed designed to detect fast targets.