Project Loon is the upside of Google’s increasingly global reach
Credit: iLighter (Flickr)   

As regular readers may have noticed, UnHerd isn’t exactly uncritical of the big tech companies. For various examples, see here and here, or indeed here and here, not to mention here and here. And also here. It’s almost like we think the massive concentration of economic and cultural power in the hands of a tiny elite might be a bad thing.

Still, from time-to-time, it’s worth contemplating the potential (and actual!) good that these companies can achieve for the world.

There’s a great example in a recent report by Timothy B Lee for ArsTechnica. It concerns the unfortunately named ‘Project Loon’ – which is a Google endeavour to use high altitude balloons as a global communications network:

“…the idea of providing Internet service via balloons sounds crazy—indeed it has sounded crazy since Google first announced the effort, dubbed Project Loon, in 2013. But Google… is deadly serious about making balloon-powered Internet access a real thing.”

In normal circumstances, ground-based towers are a much better bet for mobile communications. But what about places in the world where there aren’t any?

One such place is Puerto Rico after the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria:

“Cell phone companies on the island are still working to repair infrastructure after the hurricane took 95 percent of the island’s cell phone towers out of service.”

So X, Google’s company devoted to technological ‘moonshots,’ is sending a fleet of balloons to serve as cell phone towers in the sky. ‘We are now collaborating with AT&T to deliver emergency Internet service to the hardest hit parts of the island,’ writes Alastair Westgarth, who leads the company’s balloon-based Internet efforts.

This is an experimental technology with plenty of hurdles to overcome:

“There’s a big, obvious challenge, of course: wind. If you send a balloon up 20 kilometers in the air, it will quickly blow away from the desired coverage zone. Past balloon-based transmission schemes have tethered balloons with a cable, but that limits how high the balloons can go and it increases the cost and complexity of the system.”

The original plan was to have sufficient balloons in the air so that if one drifted out of range another would drift into it. The trouble is that things that move around independently of central control have a tendency not to distribute themselves evenly. Think of buses in a busy city. You wait for ages and then three come along at once. Perhaps a closer analogy is clouds. There are millions of the things floating around and yet some places can go weeks, months or even years without seeing any.

That’s the trouble with being at the mercy of the wind.

Balloons, being balloons, can’t directly control their horizontal direction of travel. The vertical, though, is another matter:

“The balloons have on-board pumps that allow them to move up and down.

“‘From our millions of kilometers of test flights, we’ve been able to develop sophisticated models that allow us to more accurately predict the wind patterns at different altitudes,’ a Project Loon post said in 2016. ‘Using this data, our software algorithms are able to determine which altitude has a wind pattern that gives us the best chance of keeping our balloons close to the areas where we want them.’”

This is brilliant – a tribute to the genius of the engineers. But it also tells us something really important about innovation, which is that it isn’t always about the methodical execution of some perfectly conceived grand theory. It is at least as much a process of tinkering, of learning by doing, of making it up as you go along.

There is a lesson here for all sponsors of innovation, whether public or private. To expect to succeed only by doing what you already know how to do is to condemn yourself – and all those who depend on you — to stagnation. The more extensive the control that a government, or a company, has over the economic resources of a nation, the greater the responsibility it has to make room for experimentation and diversity.