Last week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a nine-page preliminary unclassified report on unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP), the government’s term for UFOs. This report wasn’t as exciting as some had hoped, though it is the start of what may prove to be an interesting development over the coming months and years. One tidbit from the report hints at how the government plans to learn about UAPs: by using artificial intelligence.
What we know so far
The unclassified preliminary report offers a very minor look at what various government sectors know about the UAP/UFO phenomenon, including instances in which these objects were observed. The report was intended to shed light on the potential threat posed by these unusual ‘alien’ aircraft, which have been spied in everything from close encounters with commercial aircraft to seemingly antagonizing intrusions with military vessels.
The gist of the report is that the government doesn’t know what these objects are and whether they’re an actual national security threat. The data comes from the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), a program formed by the Department of Defense that operates as part of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The task force is intended to “standardize the collection and reporting” of the phenomena. Among other things, the DNI report says, “Data continues to be collected and analyzed.”
The idea is that forming a standardized and consistent means for consolidating these UAP reports from agencies across the federal government will improve the quality of data while streamlining the analysis process. How, exactly, will the data be analyzed? Though many details aren’t forthcoming, the DNI report does contain one hint at how the government is approaching this mystery.
Artificial intelligence may be key
On page six of the report, the DNI reveals that the UAPTF will initially use AI and machine learning algorithms to “cluster and recognize similarities and patterns in features of the data points.” Using artificial intelligence to make sense of data is nothing new, but this is perhaps one of the most interesting uses of the technology to date.
Though human analysis can turn up many details, the tedious work takes considerable time as the amount of data grows and certain data points may not be recognized in the mix. Machine learning algorithms are able to rapidly process large amounts of data in search of things like commonalities and anomalies, alerting human experts to identified patterns and points of interest to help guide a deeper exploration of the topic.
The government’s use of AI will help address the biggest issue related to UAP/UFO reports: figuring out which ones are credible and truly involve unknown phenomena rather than mistaken, but quite mundane and explainable, objects. Shiny ballons, distant birds flying in formation, drones with LEDs, and similar subjects can be easily mistaken for UFOs when viewed by someone unfamiliar with the objects or in distracting environments like storms.
The DNI explains that as the UAPTF’s database grows, the artificial intelligence that analyzes it will learn to tell the difference between ordinary terrestrial objects like weather balloons from truly interesting and seemingly unexplainable objects.
Limited data is a problem
The report makes it clear that the task force is working under the assumption that sensors used to observe the phenomena “generally operate correctly” and that enough actual data is collected in the process to facilitate “initial assessments.” There may be instances in which sensor anomalies could explain why an observed object acts in erratic or unexpected ways, however.
At this time, at least as far as the report is concerned, the UAPTF has focused on a selection of observations and incidents largely reported by people who work for the US government. A total of 144 cases are briefly detailed, only one of which could be positively identified as a deflating balloon.
The majority of the reports involved multiple aspects of observation ranging from personnel who saw the objects to tracking with multiple types of sensors, including infrared and radar, weapon seekers, and more. Beyond that, the report confirms that some of the observations involved UAP that seemed to “exhibit unusual flight characteristics.”
The report cautions that a more “rigorous analysis” of these instances is necessary to determine whether the strange activity could have been the result of sensor errors or spoofing technology, the latter of which confuses tech systems into perceiving something that isn’t actually taking place.
The UAPTF is operating with the assumption that there are multiple explanations for these reports and that most of them will involve mundane reasons like industry programs or natural atmospheric phenomena. However, the government is accommodating other potential explanations in a catch-all “other” category, which the report notably fails to elaborate upon beyond covering objects for which “pending scientific advances” would enable a better understanding.
Though the US government has avoided all mentions of the possibility of these craft being alien in origin, it does emphasize a major concern about potential national security problems associated with the phenomenon. The report indicates that the technology could be the result of a foreign adversary, though critics of this idea point out the improbable and highly concerning notion that another country could have spent years operating such vehicles around the US military without being identified.
Beyond the national security concerns, the DNI report mentions that some pilots have reported “near misses” with UAPs, incidents that were documented in 11 cases. The instances in which these unknown objects have operated in close proximity to aircraft indicate they may be a threat to airspace safety.
Working together to solve the mystery
At this point in time, the UAPTF is developing an interagency system for analyzing and processing UAP reports and data. There are limitations to the analysis at this time as hinted at in the report. The UAPTF is largely working with information provided by the US Navy, according to the DNI, though it hopes to change this by opening a pathway for other agencies to easily consolidate and share their data.
The report indicates that the US Air Force did not contribute data to this report. The UAPTF is presently attempting to get any data the USAF may have, but it’s unclear what may be the current limiting factor and how far the task force is in this process.
The US Air Force is not uninformed about the issue. The DNI report reveals the USAF formed a pilot program in November 2020 that would run for six months. This program was intended to identify hot spots where UAPs/UFOs are most likely to be encountered. Though the pilot program would now be over without an extension, the report reveals that the USAF is currently “evaluating how to normalize future collections, reporting, and analysis” across the entire branch.
The Federal Aviation Administration is likely to play a major role in the gathering of UAP data. The UAPTF has started receiving some information from the FAA, which is said to acquire the data as part of its normal air traffic operations management. The UAPTF may particularly benefit from data the FAA continuously acquires, using it to find anomalies that may bolster its budding machine learning algorithms.
Beyond the military
The government likewise plans to expand its analysis to reports from more than just government employees, noting that the UAPTF can use the FAA’s “robust outreach program” to increase understanding and emphasize the need for reports from the aviation community. The DNI report’s note about “the importance of reporting UAP” incidents underscores the urgency the government may harbor in regards to the phenomena, which still remains of little interest to the general public.
The report goes on to explain:
The UAPTF is looking for novel ways to increase the collection of UAP cluster areas when U.S. forces are not present as a way to baseline “standard” UAP activity and mitigate the collection bias in the dataset.
Another tidbit in the report reveals that the use of machine learning algorithms in this program will not be limited to newly collected data. The DNI revealed that a proposal has been made to utilize “advanced algorithms” to study the mass of historical data from radar and other systems to potentially grow the dataset and learn more about the history of this phenomenon, which in turn may shed light on its present occurrence and the driving factor behind it.
The work is just getting started, however, and the UAPTF has made it known that more funding will help it develop its program and conduct research into UAPs. Artificial intelligence will ultimately play a major role in this effort and may speed up the rate of analysis considerably, paving the way for relatively rapid advancement in the understanding of these mysterious objects spotted around the world.
The full unidentified aerial phenomena report can be found on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s website.