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He created Oculus headsets as a teenager. Now he makes AI weapons for Ukraine

COSTA MESA, Calif. - It’s easy to spot Palmer Luckey. He’s the guy with the mullet and the goatee, almost always dressed in khaki shorts, flip flops and bright Hawaiian shirts.

As he gives a tour of Anduril, the artificial intelligence weapons company he founded just south of Los Angeles, he’s in his standard business attire.

"This is one of my Dungeons and Dragons Hawaiian shirts," he explains. "You've got an elder dragon. You've got a fighter, a couple of wizards. I wear a lot of Hawaiian shirts because I like them, and I can get away with it.”

He can get away with it because he's been a billionaire since his early 20s.

When still a teenager, Luckey launched his first tech company, Oculus, the virtual reality headset for gaming. He sold it a couple years later to Facebook for $2 billion.

Now 31, Luckey took that fortune and founded a new company, Anduril, that’s making AI intelligence weapons like drones and submarines.

The Pentagon is buying them, keeping some for itself and sending others to Ukraine. Seven years after it started, Anduril says it's selling its autonomous weapons to about 10 countries worldwide.

In a showroom with its weapons on display, Luckey describes the company's ALTIUS drone.

"It's a drone that fires out of a tube into the air and then unfolds itself, extends its wings, extends its tail, unfolds the propeller and transforms itself into a small airplane," he says. "It can carry up to a 30-pound warhead. So you've got a lot of punch in this thing.”

Anduril has taken a new approach to making weapons

Anduril is among a growing number of tech companies making artificial intelligence weapons — and boldly proclaiming they’ll change the way the U.S. and its allies wage war.

In short, the aim is more tech doing the fighting and fewer troops in harm's way. The revolution hasn't happened yet. But these companies are shaking up an industry long dominated by massive firms such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, which build large, traditional weapons, from fighter jets to tanks, designed to last decades.

Anduril, named after a sword in Lord of the Rings, has a very different approach.

"I had this belief that the major defense companies didn't have the right talent or the right incentive structure to invest in things like artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics," says Luckey. "And the companies that did have expertise, like Google, like Facebook, like Apple, were refusing to work with the U.S. national security community."

Anduril’s pitch is AI weapons, built in less time and at a lower cost than traditional defense contractors.

The man spreading this message is an iconoclastic figure in the largely liberal tech community for his work with the military, and his outspoken politics, including long-standing support for Donald Trump.

But Palmer Luckey is hard to ignore.

Anduril is helping arm Ukraine

Just days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Luckey made his way to the capital Kyiv, and met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"Anduril has had hardware in Ukraine since the second week of the war. So we immediately got involved," Luckey says.

The Ukraine war has become a laboratory for an array of high-tech systems.

Most striking is Elon Musk's Starlink satellite network that provides critical communications for Ukraine’s military.

However, in this emerging industry of AI weapons, critics say a lot of bugs still need to be worked out.

In several off-the-record conversations, people working closely with Ukraine’s military say many new weapons, from a range of companies, still have flaws, are vulnerable to Russian counter-measures, and simply have not yet performed as advertised.

So far, they add, these weapons have had a limited impact and have not changed the war’s trajectory.

Anduril’s CEO Brian Schimpf acknowledges the difficulties, but sees them as surmountable.

"Ukraine is a very challenging environment to learn in," he says. "I’ve heard various estimates from the Ukrainians themselves that any given drone typically has a life span of about four weeks. The question is can you respond and adapt?”

Jacquelyn Schneider, who studies military technology as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, says the war has dramatically increased the pace of innovation.

"Technologies that worked really well even a few months ago are now constantly having to change," she says. "And the big difference I do see is that software changes the rate of change."

Weapons systems in Ukraine need to be updated frequently, just like the software on a phone or computer.

"If you're buying a weapons platform that cannot be very easily modified for these software innovations, then the weapon system will become useless or not as effective in a very short period of time," she adds.

P.W. Singer, an author who writes about war and tech, says, "There's this mythology of innovation as if it happens in one place."

The reality is "there's a lot of cool, exciting stuff happening in the big defense primes. There's a lot of cool, exciting stuff happening in the big-tech Silicon Valley companies. There's a lot of cool, exciting stuff happening in small startups," he says.

He also says AI weapons like drones should be seen as an addition — not a replacement — for existing weapons.

"No one is saying, 'Well, that means there's no need for our traditional military. There's no need for manned airplanes.' Of course, you need both," he says.

A constantly evolving battlefield

In the face of Russia's big offensive two years ago, Ukrainians turned to small, cheap civilian drones made in China and available on the Internet. The Ukrainians attached grenades and other small explosives, then dropped the weapons down the open turrets of unsuspecting Russian tanks.

In many instances, a $1,000 drone was taking out a multi-million-dollar tank or other expensive Russian weaponry, as well as inflicting casualties on Russian troops. But it's getting much harder for the Ukrainians to carry out these kinds of attacks.

The Russians have responded with electronic jamming, blocking the signal the drone was sending to the Ukrainian soldier operating it. This renders the drone useless.

This where Anduril is trying to step in. The company's AI drones can be programmed before takeoff to search on their own for Russian tanks or other targets.

Once launched, these drones don’t need guidance from a Ukrainian soldier — making them very hard to detect and stop, says Luckey.

"The autonomy onboard is really what sets it apart," he says. "It's not a remote controlled plane. There's a brain on it that is able to look for targets, identify targets and fly into those targets."

Of course, this raises questions about who’s responsible if something goes wrong — like hitting civilians.

In a recent report submitted to the United Nations, Human Rights Watch called for "the urgent negotiation and adoption of a legally binding instrument to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapons systems."

The organization says more than 270 groups and 70 countries have now joined its Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

However, Anduril’s Brian Schimpf says AI weapons are "not about taking humans out of the loop. I don't think that's the right ethical framework. This is really about how do we make human decision-makers more effective and more accountable to their decisions."

Drones aren’t just in the skies anymore. They’re also in the seas.

Ukraine now makes its own sea drones — essentially jet skis packed with explosives — which have inflicted serious damage on the Russian navy in the Black Sea.

Luckey shows me Anduril’s version, an underwater drone called Dive-LD, in an old, largely vacant industrial building that’s part of Anduril’s otherwise shiny campus.

We put on virtual reality headsets — an updated model of the one Luckey created — for an augmented look at the sub.

"It's an autonomous underwater vehicle that is able to go very, very long distances, dive to a depth of about 6,000 meters, which is deep enough to go to the bottom of almost any ocean," he says.

Last month, Anduril won a U.S. Navy contract to build more than 200 of them annually.

Luckey has pursued his interests in tech, business and politics since his teen years. Way back in 2011, Luckey wrote to Donald Trump and urged him to run for president.

"I said, 'Hey, consider me one of the people who thinks it's good to have a businessperson in office, somebody who's familiar with signing both sides of a check.'"

He still supports Trump today.

"In general, yeah, I think he'd make a good commander in chief," he adds.

Yet from a business perspective, he says he’s not that concerned about who wins in November.

"We made a lot of money under Trump. We made even more money under Biden. I think we're going to continue expanding whoever is in office next," said Luckey.

More AI weapons are coming, he says, no matter who’s in the White House.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

NPR producer Kira Wakeam contributed to this report.

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