I'm trying to write a 'gundam like' series, though with space fighters instead of humanoid robots. I want a semi-hard science world, I'm okay with making up technology without fully explaining how it works so long as it seems plausible, but I want to be as realistic as possible within my world and to stay consistent to whatever technology I do add to the world. This makes short range space fighters difficult to justify...

I'm using hand waves, Minovsky Particles and similar tricks to justify space fighters, most notably the presence of energy shields requires use of short range energy weapons to pierce them, they're more vulnerable to lots of weaker attacks from small fighters than a few large attacks from capital ships, and the massive ER radiation from shields, coupled with active electronic countermeasures, prevents remote control of them.

The biggest problems I have with justifying these space-fighters is AI. It still seems like a good AI will be more viable for these space fighters than human pilots. The cost of space fighters goes up if you have to include life support systems, and in fact, the increased size of the fighters to fit a human, controls, and life support makes it a bigger target. My 'Ace' class fighters, rare fighters equipped with their own shields, particularly would suffer from extra size making shields noticeably less effective. Removing humans from the fighters make them cheaper and smaller.

In addition a future AI could presumably be faster to respond to attacks than humans, less predictable, more trustworthy (won't betray you, won't retreat in fear, won't do something stupid, or try piloting drunk), better able to handle a truly 3D fight, that humans aren't used to thinking in, and able to handle G-forces humans can't. Plus use of AI means no human death if fighters are destroyed.

However, I want human pilots as my protagonists. I do not want AI-controlled fighters to exist. Thus I want to come up with the best justification(s) for why humans would still be piloting these vehicles.

Right now my best justification was to simply say that AI advancements stagnated in our future. While we can do all the AI we manage now, and some things AI do better, AI capable of processing the complexity of fighting in space simply have not been developed. However, this seems unlikely to me. I'm a programmer, and I feel like our AI of today, with enough (and I'm talking many years) of development, could already almost handle controlling a space fighter. Give up faster processing and better computers, which will exist in the future, and it's hard to believe that AI would be less suited than humans.

Are there other approaches I can use to justify human pilots over AI? I will not have an "AI went crazy and tried to kill us all" backstory, or otherwise make people afraid of a "terminator scenario". I'm not discussing human intellect or actual 'learning' AI when I say AI here, so there is no danger of an AI being smart enough to revolt and I just don't consider it a realistic concern.

EDIT: I sort of implied it, but to be clear I'm not talking about sapient level learning strong AI, or anything that advanced. I'm talking about weak AI in the sense we have now mostly, it responds to per-programed stimuli quickly in a manner that its programmers felt was best, with some randomness and game theory strategies to avoid predictability. It doesn't need to learn or be capable of doing anything other than flying a fighter and shooting at things. Sapient AI will never be in any of my stories, I think it's game breaking and boring.

Final Decision: Wow, I can't thank everyone enough, there has been a multitude of good reasons listed below. I don't think that anyone alone solves fully the problem, at least not within my desired world and limits on what technology and limits I want to place in it; but luckily I have many reasons provided!

One of my characters is a pacifist and programmer, who effectively writes basic weak AI to drive shields, and is working on trying to find a way to remove pilots from fighters because he figures humans will always war, the best one can do is limit the deaths from it. I'm going to early on have him go on a tirade with how he would love to replace pilots with AI and, when questioned on it, he will go on a bit of a geek rant on the numerous factors which limit AI, and which all collaboratively work to make it not yet viable, and unlikely to be viable for a while. I'm going to draw on many of the answers below to fill out his long list of reasons he gives. Therefore I feel bad about being able to only reward one person top answer, at least a half-dozen of people's answers will be used.

Here is a short list of most of the things he will go on about, though I am including some other minor parts of other answers.

  • AI techniques have not progressed much in the future. We have faster computers, but our approaches for learning AI and genetic algorithms still haven't panned out for large-scale tools; so we're still dependent on the deep blue "calculate all possibilities in a quadratically expanding tree" which simply doesn't scale well. as a geek I almost see him starting to explain big O and how the quadratic increase in processing speed per year can't keep up with higher big O of processing complexity for every nano-second 'look ahead' needed for these AI before he realizes he's talking way over his audience's heads.
    • Limits in AI development mean that humans are better at making decisions in the heat of battle. With communication being somewhat limited during firefights to occasional burst transmissions (limits of my world, regular comms are all effective blocked, quasi-FTL comms exist but are limited in how they work) it's important to have someone who can make decisions even if communications go down entirely.
  • AI is expensive. Shields emit massive EM radiation and even EMP spikes. Working in a battleground with so much ER requires shielded hardware that is more expensive, and the cheaper non-shielded mobile suits are better mass produced. Computers can still exist, but your processing power is more limited by the expense of building machines that function in space with ER and other emissions in battle.
  • I've begrudgingly agreed to have pilots use a mind-machine interface to handle some of their piloting, though I'll have them use a combo of that and regular controls under the claim that the MMI can only interface with certain parts of the mind that are easiest to translate to actionable commands. Specifically, the MMI is used for movement and navigation only, and physical controls for everything else. I would prefer to avoid this one for storytelling reasons, but otherwise, it's just too hard to justify pilots reaction speed being fast enough.
  • All this combines to resulting in AI existing on fighters but being limited to certain functions. Humans still are used for those things we can't make AI do easily and cheaply.

Other more political factors which also play a role, primarily in limiting funding towards developing techniques to work around the above issues.

  • People don't trust AI with guns, everyone is afraid their go rouge and hurt people. He will likely go on to point out some of this is unreasonable bias on people from watching too many unrealistic sci-fi stories, but none the less the bias is against it.
  • People distrust AI for fear of hacking. He blatantly says this is nonsense and locking down the system would require programming effort but is by no means impossible, but it's politicians, not programmers who sign the checks for hardware purchases; and you can't convince them of that fact.
  • political pressure exists to keep people as pilots. A combination of fear of AI in weapons, soldiers not wanting to be rendered unemployed by AI, desire for accountability, and a belief that wars will grow more and more excessive without human factor.
  • People want humans willing/capable of saying no if a general goes too far in his decisions. There will be a past infamous example of a general who went against orders and fired off numerous automated weapons without regards to their equivalent of the Geneva convention, killing many civilians and generally the entire incident is considered an atrocity. It's agreed this was one crazy man without any support from others who were able to do this only because of the automated systems not having any check to prevent one man from firing all of them. Militaries all now have multiple people required to authorize automated weapons, as they should have then, but this incident is remembered still. One of the argument's against AI is that this sort of situation could occur again if a pilot is not present to refuse unlawful orders.
  • Assorted tweaks to my technology to make limits of pilots not be as significant. For instance, the best propulsion systems for shielded craft have limited delta-V, because other propulsion systems are either too expensive for mass produced (non-shielded) fighters or tend to destabilize shields for shielded crafts. This, in turn, limits G-forces imposed on pilots. I'll also have a poor man's inertial dampeners used to address G-force concerns.
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    $\begingroup$ This feels like a duplicate of: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/8587/… $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ A similar question was actually asked on Aviation StackExchange - aviation.stackexchange.com/q/1802/615 $\endgroup$
    – JMK
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2015 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ Do the humans have to be "our" (i.e. from our Earth) descendants? Or could the story be set in a slightly different fictional universe, or the "humans" are from another planet? - Like Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars, where there are humans but they aren't us. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ Uhm, I don't know why I didn't think of it yet, but it's actually pretty pretty easy: Automatic targeting (and unmanned fighters are nothing else) has ALWAYS been an arms race against its countermeasures (flares, decoys etc.). In your universe, the countermeasures just won (due to an upper limit to targeting computers). Therefore, only fighters and (manually aimed) capital ship guns are possible. [The fighters also having countermeasures explains why anti-figher batteries cant destroy them immediately] $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 12:31

37 Answers 37


Idea: You could have your fighter pilots make a regular habit of boarding and capturing larger ships (or installations). In that case, a simple AI to pilot the fighter isn't enough -- you'd need a whole robot. And it can't be a clunky robot either. It must be capable of maneuvering through an enemy ship, with unknown internals, with damaged sections, and with enemy resistance to the boarders. Then it would have to repair the enemy ship and pilot it back to their territory. (Or maybe use it to continue the battle, or as a spy ship, or a hundred other scenarios.)

The point is, move from an air force analogy to a naval analogy. Turn your fighter pilots into buccaneers, and you change from needing only a fighter-pilot AI to needing an immensely sophisticated robot. From a certain point of view, human beings are already immensely sophisticated robots, so why would your future empires reinvent the wheel? (Also, it is one thing to have AIs in one's civilization. It is quite another thing to have large numbers of robots that are both physically and mentally as sophisticated as people.)

[edit: Just realized that this idea is similar to Dune's land warfare, where shields are highly effective, except against slow-moving attacks. This leads to land warfare based on masses of infantry (with transport hoppers for mobility), engaged in close-quarters/hand-to-hand combat.]


In the future, AI is both powerful and nigh-on sentient. In a standard Earth fighter jet, for instance, an AI would literally fly circles around a human. They can maneuver around obstacles a human pilot wouldn't even register. They can track targets via complex physics equations, to the point of knowing where individual molecules will fly when the ship is destroyed.

If they can do all that, then why would you ever need a human pilot?

Electromagnetic radiation

The Handwave Engines create a massive amount of electromagnetic radiation. Obviously, computers can be shielded from the EM fields produced, but the shielding makes the ships much larger, bulkier, and overall less stable. Instead, ships are flown by a mechanical wire system, directly controlled by the pilot, with a minimum of hardened electrical components. The engine and its electronics are shielded enough to operate, and the pilot doesn't need any shielding, apart from the usual "keep the air in" and "keep the energy weapons out" sort. In fact, the shields can use those very same EM fields to operate. It's noisy (frequency-wise), but that's good for a shield; it stops the ability for enemies to use a jammer or worse, a harmonic resonator, which would amplify the shield to the point of killing the occupant. As an added bonus, most ships will continue to fly just fine after being hit with an EMP, as there is precious little to damage.

Near-Light Speed Is Weird

At the near-light speeds of space fighters, all sorts of weird things happen in physics. Simulating the effects is possible, but the sheer amount of detail the computer has to know is staggering. A standard computer can barely do it real-time, and the bulky, super-hardened computers in a fighter ship are left far in the dust. Luckily, humans are really good at ignoring information, no matter how important it is. With only a few basic filters, a human can track an enemy pilot through space as fast as if they were both in jets in Earth's atmosphere.

Super-Light Speed Is Really Weird

Of course, that's at sub-light-speed. Once the Handwavium particles are engaged and the ships move into the mini wormhole/warp speed/hyperspace/a parallel universe (let's call it Superspace), physics really goes out the window. No one really knows what Superspace actually looks like; rather, the ultra-high-frequency energy patterns interact directly with the human brain. As the brain tries to understand the information, it translates the patterns into sights, sounds, even tastes. The pilot can use those sensations to guide his flight, ending up roughly where he wants to: "Fly until you see orange and smell figs, curve left, and keep going until you taste hot blueberries."

Certain energy patterns exist around every solar system, allowing pilots to avoid hitting planets or stars; however, each system has its own sensations, which allow pilots to navigate "by feel".

A computer, of course, can make nothing of the information provided; the vague energy blasts are gone too quickly to process in any useful way. Granted, a computer can fly from point A to point B; it just has to make all the calculations ahead of time, and fly blind. If something is in its way, it will make a small, expensive supernova.


I've looked and couldn't see any so sorry if I'm bringing up asked and answered, but what is the reason for drone operations being out of the question? By Drone, I am talking in the current military term, where there is an aircraft that is being operated by a human pilot who is not in the physical aircraft. The only thing I could see as a problem with this system from a practical scale is that there could be some signal lag (and the shielding could block signals, I guess).

But for your pacifist programmer, this would be the best of both worlds. You preserve the superior advantage of a human pilot while limiting his exposure on the battlefield. So instead of fighting a war, your pilots are playing a video game.

Now, another overlooked issue is that a Carrier is a powerful ship... but it's also quite defensive light weight. Real life carriers are flanked by a small fleet of other ships that server as screens against enemy action. There are missile cruisers (they provide a bulk of anti-air) destroys (surface patrol and anti-air actions) and submarines (keeping the underwaters safe) that protect the carrier, which does all the shooting back (not to mention the carriers operate multi-role craft which can go from air to air combat to air to ground combat in a pinch for additional screens against enemy action). The end result is that if an enemy ship is close enough to the carrier that unassisted visual contact can be made, something has gone terribly wrong. Perhaps another motive is that the AIs had prioritizing issues and would target the highest valued target first and would always go to the carrier gung-ho and ignoring the other ships that were there specifically to stop them. Sure it's not a human life, but it's still an investment that isn't easily replaced when at war.

  • $\begingroup$ How does this answers the root question? We all know pilots on board create problems. The question is how to build a world in which it will make sense. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Molot First part about drones is because OP does have a character that wants to remove the human from the machine... hence a stepping stone that does that that is already in use needs to be addressed (why are drones not viable)? Second part is yet another consideration that takes the nature of Carrier Theory Combat into account and posits a simple AI that may have issues with engaging correct targeting (One more reason not to go the A.I. route). $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ In actuality the possibility of drones is a key plot point of my story. The original question i posted suggests this is impossible (I explicitly said ER radiaiton prevented remote control). However, the programmer has a trick for using FTL comms for drones, previously thought impossible to do without being easily blocked. It turns out it is impossible, there is an obscure vulnerability in the black box code he didn't disclose when publically releasing it, in hopes that until it's discovered drones will be used temporarily saving lives. Still, doesn't help with why AI aren' used though. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 14:21

Necroposting! (And yes, I read or at least skimmed through all the other answers.) I'll recap some answers and then provide more of my own input.

What we already know

Used issues from other ansers:

  • Piloting is already hard with AI;
  • AI is not creative, adapt to unexpected failures, compassionate enough;
  • AIs can be hacked; the fight is not a cinematographic dogfight, but a clash of hackers and/or electronic warfare.

Not directly used, but might spice up things:

  • Humans+ might be able to do things AIs cannot, such as precog or mind radar.

Don't "fight" weak AI, embrace it, ...

Piloting a complicated spacecraft, working around failures due to enemy fire or technical malfunction, being cheap is everything robots can do. Being "creative", less so. Using some superpowers, even less.

We need a weak AI in our warplanes in space. Or else, as someone noted, we are reduced to WW2 era dogfights, maybe Vietnam era guided missiles, but not much more.

... but don't trust it too deeply

Let's talk about electronic warfare. There are some levels of hacking with communications in a combat.

  • Jam the communication channel;
  • "Listen" to the decrypted communication and act accordingly (basically, what British did in WW2);
  • "Fake" encrypted communication and misguide the enemy.

If we had a secure channel that cannot be hacked, we might use a single manned "commander" figher (probably build all others to the same standard to avoid visual detection and aim prioritization) and a swarm of robot "actors".

If we don't believe in secure communication, even more if enemy can force our robots into friendly fire, we need to man all the fighters.

The scenario

So, you can imagine following:

The war was intended to fight with killer robots. The robots were controlling actual manned-looking planes, because they need some guidance from inside the battlefield. (It's the same idea as the German WW2 "commander tank", that looked just the same as a regular one, including a canon mock-up, just the other way 'round.)

In the first phase of the war this idea spectacularly went South: the jamming and decryption and fake orders abilities of the enemy were underestimated. Luckily, all space fighters were made the way that they could be manned.

Because hacking inside a single plane is much harder, than hacking inter-plane communication, this worked out. So, we'd still use weak AI for navigation, actual flying, aim prioritization, super-radar readings, etc. But all fighters are manned with humans, as humans can detect, if an enemy is pulling their leg on the comm, and robots don't.

As far as loses are not exorbitant, this strategy works. Fighting with killer robot planes only costs money, but not lives on our side. So, one could expect the Vietnam protests, if it's some kind of an "unwanted war".

Five seconds of real life

Some previous generation Su fighters (I forgot which) and (to my knowledge) all fifth-generation fighters require a real-time computer to fly. Basically, those planes are aerodynamically unstable, when kept still they cannot hold their course. Thus, in order to not crash immediately, they need a special computer to adjust the control surfaces a bit in quite repeated manner. This large price is paid for the higher agility of the plane when it needs to manoeuvre.

Of course, this system is not an AI, but it's still a computer. I'd imagine that a space warplane would have much more of such systems. Maybe, not all are really, really needed, but they a) follow the general trend (don't ask how many computers are there in a modern car), b) improve certain aspects of the machine's performance, and any issue at war might mean the difference between win and loose.


What I am basically saying: having a weak AI on board would be a rather improvement of some aspects of the war plane, and as such, welcomed. Having a human on board, would improve other aspects of a war plane, and hence would enjoy the same treatment.



I don't think this answer has been given, but maybe you have a Warrior Caste - people who relish the joy of battle, it is their raison d'etre. They are a politically powerful group - sort of like a trade union - who will not allow AIs to be used to do their fighting.

Alternatively, you could be in a dystopian world, where human life is so cheap, they simply don't care enough about the pilots to build the A.I. Even if building the A.I. is just a one-time cost, it's still very expensive, so why bother when mass-producing the fighter ships is relatively cheap (what with all the slave labour) and there are millions of humans you can use to pilot them.


Another issue that isn't really touched on here is damage control - an AI might be able to do a fantastic job of flying when everything's working hunky dory, but when half the reaction controls are out, the main nozzle control's in reversion, and the main engine is surging due to a turbopump fault, never mind the loss of two computers and an electrical bus to battle damage, it's going to have a much harder time "thinking outside the box" in order to limp home or even finish the mission than a well-trained human pilot would.

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    $\begingroup$ What makes you think that AI can't do that. Human don't really think out side the box when piloting- that would mean its aliens or time traveller or simply some unexpected outside influence causing my problems. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ @user2617804 -- humans are much better at making sense of contradictory or incomplete information than computers are, given the appropriate chance. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ Fuzzy expert systems handle it just as well as humans. Anything less than sufficient information- rotational,velocity,accelerations,positions and the spacecraft is doomed period. Lots of human pilots have crashed planes due to sensory or instrument contradictory information whereas the AI would go for stabilise plane first which reduces risks. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 23:28

Firstly, sentient level AI is just dumb to have on a fighter/gundam, as such realistically there likely won't be, as such many decisions will still have to be made so these need to be transmitted OR have a pilot. Transmission will take time and can be hacked so you don't want that as much as possible.

This leads into the second point, if you're going to have a Sentient and non-Sentient AI (as you would have to), you may as well make the Sentient a biological organism rather than a sentient AI, because then you have protection from hacking and two different processing systems, one that is wildly less logical will result in a overall better chance at winning due to being able to come up with things from different perspectives.

Any AI you have, adaptive or otherwise, relies on a set of rules. If I can figure out those rules I can use them to my advantage as a sentient. On the other side, human behavior is can be unpredictable and as such an AI could just not be able to adapt.

Also, if a ship is damaged and needs repairs an AI, in many cases won't be able to fix itself, even if it has nanites that are safe to use.

So basically, Security, Strategy, and the ability to repair is better with a human pilot, no matter how fast or powerful the CPU and AI is.

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    $\begingroup$ your conclusion is a stretch and is not logical from your premise. AI human comparison - no so much valid. Humans relays on rules they learn in probably their space academy school simulation - and how good they learned those rules - depend will they pass or not. nanites and repair problem - totally not compatible statements, but long to explain why, and with nanites they do not need fighters probably. Good point is actually only about biological "AI" not need to be Sentient, be savvy is good enough - mouse brains system. But that hybrid system is something to think about. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ If a human gets a rule wrong it still beneficial because then they are acting in a way that is not predicted by the AI. Nanite AI would be developed in such a way not to spread keeping them from repairing the ship in any situation the materials cannot be accessed. Supposing a crash into an uncivilized planet, that ship is not being repaired unless you have pilot to move around and get things to repair the ship. Mouse brains are good enough for some parts, not others. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ I guess you do not know how our today self-learning algorithms working. And that is root of problem u comparing them with humans. It's my note about your A and I prefer to keep it short. I would recommend to add this spreading limiting point to u answer - that's good enough reason to limit gray goo. I called it incompatible for other reason, then material gathering, more about informational ones. But grey goo is overkill, no need in pilots and fighters, in first place. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 6:45
  • $\begingroup$ Don't know how learning AI works completely, but I have a good enough understanding of it. It simply will never be good enough to handle human thinking completely and it also has the same limitations as the nanites in that we would put in certain things that it can't do and those can be exploited. I think of human pilots in the future more as the seat of thinking of the fighter, not the operator, they're decision maker or the action stopper, but a lot of the activity would be handled by the AI. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ AI, even current soft AI, can do unpredictable 1000 times better then humans. Humans SUCK at being unpredictable, random number generators are great at it. If your ship is damaged enough to need serious repair odds are a pilot alone can't do much to repair it (a fighter pilot can't repair his fighter) and beside which, he is probably dead or stranded in space until rescue, can't fix things in space easily. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 15:59

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