Chinese military researchers have reportedly resorted to artificial intelligence (AI) to track and analyze the growing number of mysterious objects in China’s airspace as the US Defense Department prepares to release its own report later this month on unidentified flying objects (UFOs).
A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) task force dedicated to the unknown objects increasingly relies on AI technology to analyze its data, according to a report by Wuhan-based researcher Chen Li from Chinese Air Force Early Warning Academy as cited Friday by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP).
According to the report, the PLA considers the mysterious airborne objects as “unidentified air conditions” – a phrase which echoes the US military’s “unidentified aerial phenomena” – but to the public they are better known as UFOs.
Chen states that human analysts have been overwhelmed in recent years by the rapidly mounting sighting reports from a wide range of military and civilian sources across the country.
The Chinese researcher said that one advantage of AI is that it can “think outside the box” – checking crumbs of information scattered across many data sets created at different times and locations, and drawing links unseen by human eyes – to help determine whether sightings were caused by a hostile country, amateur aviation enthusiasts, nature, or “other reasons.”
With the help of AI, PLA headquarters assigns a “threat index” to each object based on its behavior, frequency of occurrence, aerodynamic design, radioactivity, possible make and materials, along with any other information.
The AI can pull together other information which may help determine an object’s purpose. For instance, if similar unknown objects have a tendency to appear during major political events or military exercises, they are considered more likely to be a man-made device deployed by another country to gather intelligence, according to the report.
Military researchers cited in the report explain that manual verification of these events usually takes time, but AI can quickly identify most natural causes by cross-checking various sources of information, such as weather satellite data.
The report also cites a radar scientist based in Xian, in the northwest province of Shaanxi, as saying that the increasing number of unknown objects in China’s air space was “more likely caused by humans than aliens.”
Chinese authorities have gradually loosened control on flight activities in low altitudes over the past few years, while drones have also become relatively cheap and popular, he said.
Meanwhile, increased US military activities in the South China Sea and other sensitive waters near China could also account for the increased appearance of objects that cannot be immediately explained, said the researcher, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The question about UFOs which most captures the imagination is whether they are alien spaceships. The US military recently confirmed the authenticity of some leaked video footage captured by navy pilots, in which flying objects appear to move in a manner that cannot be explained by current technology or physical laws.
The Pentagon report – requested by Congress on these sightings and which is expected to be partially released to the public – could be the first time any military has openly discussed the topic.
UFOs are a sensitive issue for any defense force, not only because they could be related to intelligent lifeforms from space, but also, and perhaps more likely, they may be incursions by another country’s military.
An intruding enemy drone or aircraft equipped with advanced interference technology, for instance, could fool radar or other sensors by creating ghost images that jump around in an inexplicable manner on screen. Such incidents are usually classified for defense reasons, or to avoid embarrassment.
China’s only officially confirmed UFO sighting occurred over a military airbase in Cangzhou, Hebei province, on October 19, 1998. According to a report in Hebei Daily – official newspaper of the province which neighbors Beijing – two military jets were ordered to intercept a low-flying object that appeared suddenly above the airbase.
The object looked like a “short-legged mushroom”, with two beams of light shooting down from its belly. When the jets approached, the object climbed with “ghostlike” speed to an altitude of more than 20,000 meters, before disappearing from radar and visual contact.
According to Chen and his colleagues, the PLA has a three-tier reporting system to handle unknown aerial objects. The base level, which includes military radar stations, air force pilots, police stations, weather stations, and Chinese Academy of Sciences observatories, is responsible for gathering as much raw data as possible.
The information is processed in mid-tier by the PLA’s regional military command which conducts preliminary analysis and transfers the data to a national database.