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Wallops Island—a remote, marshy spit of land along the eastern shore of Virginia, near a famed national refuge for horses—is mostly known as a launch site for government and private rockets. But it also makes for a perfect, quiet spot to test a revolutionary weapons technology.

If a fishing vessel had steamed past the area last October, the crew might have glimpsed half a dozen or so 35-foot-long inflatable boats darting through the shallows, and thought little of it. But if crew members had looked closer, they would have seen that no one was aboard: The engine throttle levers were shifting up and down as if controlled by ghosts. The boats were using high-tech gear to sense their surroundings, communicate with one another, and automatically position themselves so, in theory, .50-caliber machine guns that can be strapped to their bows could fire a steady stream of bullets to protect troops landing on a beach.

The secretive effort—part of a Marine Corps program called Sea Mob—was meant to demonstrate that vessels equipped with cutting-edge technology could soon undertake lethal assaults without a direct human hand at the helm. It was successful: Sources familiar with the test described it as a major milestone in the development of a new wave of artificially intelligent weapons systems soon to make their way to the battlefield.

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Category: Science