Google Loon Is Now Beaming WiFi Down to Earth From Giant Balloons

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

Four years ago, three big tech companies had plans in the works to beam internet down to Earth from the sky, and each scenario sounded wilder than the next. SpaceX requested permission to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit to create a global internet hotspot. Facebook wanted to use solar-powered drones and laser-based tech to shoot wifi to antennas. And Google’s Loon was building giant balloons to house solar-powered electronics that would transmit connectivity down from the stratosphere.

As incredible as it all sounds, two of these schemes have started to come to fruition. Loon balloons made their (non-emergency) debut in Kenya this week, with 35 balloons transmitting a 4G signal to 31,000 square miles of central and western Kenya. And SpaceX is in the process of signing up beta testers for its internet-via-satellite, with over 500 satellites currently in orbit. Facebook, however, stopped work on its internet drones in mid-2018.

Here’s a quick refresher on how the Loon and SpaceX systems work.

Big White Internet Balloons

Loon balloons are made of polyethylene, one of the most common plastics around (it’s in grocery bags, plastic bottles, kids’ toys, etc.). They’re 15 meters (49 feet) wide, and designed to hover in the stratosphere 20 kilometers (12 miles) above Earth. They’re launched by a custom-built crane that’s pointed downwind.

Specially-developed software uses predictive modeling of stratospheric winds and decision-making algorithms to shift the balloons as needed for a more reliable connection down below (balloons need to be within 40 kilometers of users for the service to work). The software constantly learns to improve the balloons’ choreography and thus the network’s quality, and the system can function autonomously.

The electronics inside the balloons get a wifi signal from a local telecoms partner at a ground station. In Kenya, Loon partnered with Telkom Kenya, the country’s third-largest carrier. The signal gets relayed across multiple nearby balloons that transmit it back down to peoples’ phones and other devices. Each balloon can cover an area of 5,000 square kilometers (a little under 2,000 square miles, or about the size of the state of Delaware).

A field testing session in Kenya in late June registered an upload speed of 4.74 Mpbs, a download speed of 18.9Mbps, and latency of 19 milliseconds. For comparison’s sake, the average speed in the US is 52 Mpbs upload and 135 Mbps download; so service will be a bit slower in Kenya. One other small problem: since the electronics in the balloons are solar-powered, they only send down a signal during daylight hours; service is currently available from 6am to 9pm.

Signals from Starlink

Just this past week, SpaceX launched 57 more of its Starlink satellites, bringing the total in orbit to over 500. It’s a fraction of the planned total of 4,425, but a pretty solid start. The satellites are orbiting 715 to 790 miles above Earth’s surface. Each one weighs 260 kilograms, about as much as a small car, and can reach an area 1,300 miles in diameter on the ground at a speed of one gigabit per second.

SpaceX plans for the first 1,600 satellites to be at one orbital altitude, followed by 2,825 more to be placed at four different altitudes. Each satellite is estimated to last five to seven years.

In late June SpaceX announced it was looking for beta testers for its internet service. You can sign up on Starlink’s website, and you’ll be notified if testing is going to take place in the area where you live. The company plans to start at higher latitudes (like Seattle, according to a May 7 tweet from Elon Musk), then move progressively southward.

Internet for All

According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, over half of the world’s population now has internet access—but a large percentage of that is low-quality, meaning they can’t use features like online learning, video streaming, and telehealth. A 2019 report by the organization found that only 28 percent of the African population has internet access through a computer, while 34 percent have access through a mobile phone.

Though expanding internet to the whole of the world’s population will come with some drawbacks (such as more channels for misinformation or hate speech, and not being able to go anywhere to truly “unplug”), the broader consensus is that the internet will serve as a greatly empowering and liberating force, giving people instant access to information and enabling countless business and learning opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

We probably didn’t think this would happen via giant balloons and thousands of satellites, but it won’t be the first time the developing world leapfrogs right over cumbersome, outdated technologies. If SpaceX and Loon continue on their current trajectories, it will only be a matter of time—and not all that much of it—before we’re living in a planet-wide internet bubble.

Google Loon Is Now Beaming WiFi Down to Earth From Giant Balloons

Heads in the cloud: Scientists predict internet of thoughts ‘within decades’

B/CI technology might also allow us to create a future “global superbrain” that would connect networks of individual human brains and AIs to enable collective thought. The image is in the public doamin.

Summary: Researchers predict the development of a brain/cloud interface that connects neurons to cloud computing networks in real time.

Source: Frontiers

Imagine a future technology that would provide instant access to the world’s knowledge and artificial intelligence, simply by thinking about a specific topic or question. Communications, education, work, and the world as we know it would be transformed.

Writing in Frontiers in Neuroscience, an international collaboration led by researchers at UC Berkeley and the US Institute for Molecular Manufacturing predicts that exponential progress in nanotechnology, nanomedicine, AI, and computation will lead this century to the development of a “Human Brain/Cloud Interface” (B/CI), that connects neurons and synapses in the brain to vast cloud-computing networks in real time.

Nanobots on the brain

The B/CI concept was initially proposed by futurist-author-inventor Ray Kurzweil, who suggested that neural nanorobots – brainchild of Robert Freitas, Jr., senior author of the research – could be used to connect the neocortex of the human brain to a “synthetic neocortex” in the cloud. Our wrinkled neocortex is the newest, smartest, ‘conscious’ part of the brain.

Freitas’ proposed neural nanorobots would provide direct, real-time monitoring and control of signals to and from brain cells.

“These devices would navigate the human vasculature, cross the blood-brain barrier, and precisely autoposition themselves among, or even within brain cells,” explains Freitas. “They would then wirelessly transmit encoded information to and from a cloud-based supercomputer network for real-time brain-state monitoring and data extraction.”

The internet of thoughts

This cortex in the cloud would allow “Matrix”-style downloading of information to the brain, the group claims.

“A human B/CI system mediated by neuralnanorobotics could empower individuals with instantaneous access to all cumulative human knowledge available in the cloud, while significantly improving human learning capacities and intelligence,” says lead author Dr. Nuno Martins.

B/CI technology might also allow us to create a future “global superbrain” that would connect networks of individual human brains and AIs to enable collective thought.

“While not yet particularly sophisticated, an experimental human ‘BrainNet’ system has already been tested, enabling thought-driven information exchange via the cloud between individual brains,” explains Martins. “It used electrical signals recorded through the skull of ‘senders’ and magnetic stimulation through the skull of ‘receivers,’ allowing for performing cooperative tasks.

“With the advance of neuralnanorobotics, we envisage the future creation of ‘superbrains’ that can harness the thoughts and thinking power of any number of humans and machines in real time. This shared cognition could revolutionize democracy, enhance empathy, and ultimately unite culturally diverse groups into a truly global society.”

When can we connect?

According to the group’s estimates, even existing supercomputers have processing speeds capable of handling the necessary volumes of neural data for B/CI – and they’re getting faster, fast.

Rather, transferring neural data to and from supercomputers in the cloud is likely to be the ultimate bottleneck in B/CI development.

“This challenge includes not only finding the bandwidth for global data transmission,” cautions Martins, “but also, how to enable data exchange with neurons via tiny devices embedded deep in the brain.”

One solution proposed by the authors is the use of ‘magnetoelectric nanoparticles’ to effectively amplify communication between neurons and the cloud.

“These nanoparticles have been used already in living mice to couple external magnetic fields to neuronal electric fields – that is, to detect and locally amplify these magnetic signals and so allow them to alter the electrical activity of neurons,” explains Martins. “This could work in reverse, too: electrical signals produced by neurons and nanorobots could be amplified via magnetoelectric nanoparticles, to allow their detection outside of the skull.”

Getting these nanoparticles – and nanorobots – safely into the brain via the circulation, would be perhaps the greatest challenge of all in B/CI.

“A detailed analysis of the biodistribution and biocompatibility of nanoparticles is required before they can be considered for human development. Nevertheless, with these and other promising technologies for B/CI developing at an ever-increasing rate, an ‘internet of thoughts’ could become a reality before the turn of the century,” Martins concludes.

Heads in the cloud: Scientists predict internet of thoughts ‘within decades’

Inside an internet addiction treatment centre in China

IN CHINA, if you are a kid who spends a long time online, you had better watch out. Your parents may send you off for “treatment”.

At the Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in Beijing, children must take part in military-style activities, including exercise drills and the singing of patriotic songs. They are denied access to the internet. One of the first experiences internees undergo is brain monitoring through electroencephalography (EEG). The programme is run by psychologist Tao Ran, who claims the brains of internet and heroin addicts display similarities.

The rise of such centres has, in some cases, been coupled with reports of brutality. One camp in Henan province was recently criticised after it was alleged that a 19-year-old girl died following corporal punishment doled out by officers.

“We had heard stories about electroshocks, physical torture and confinement, but we found none of those,” says Aldama.

“The children usually get angry when they know that they’ll be locked in the centre, where parents put them without prior notice. They deny suffering an addiction. But as time goes by, I believe they are more sociable and calm. They get in better physical shape thanks to the sports training,” Aldama says.

The man who can hear Wi-Fi wherever he walks

Frank Swain has been going deaf since his 20s. Now he has hacked his hearing so he can listen in to the data that surrounds us.

I am walking through my north London neighbourhood on an unseasonably warm day in late autumn. I can hear birds tweeting in the trees, traffic prowling the back roads, children playing in gardens and Wi-Fi leaching from their homes. Against the familiar sounds of suburban life, it is somehow incongruous and appropriate at the same time.

As I approach Turnpike Lane tube station and descend to the underground platform, I catch the now familiar gurgle of the public Wi-Fi hub, as well as the staff network beside it. On board the train, these sounds fade into silence as we burrow into the tunnels leading to central London.

I have been able to hear these fields since last week. This wasn’t the result of a sudden mutation or years of transcendental meditation, but an upgrade to my hearing aids. With a grant from Nesta, the UK innovation charity, sound artist Daniel Jones and I built Phantom Terrains, an experimental tool for making Wi-Fi fields audible.

Our modern world is suffused with data. Since radio towers began climbing over towns and cities in the early 20th century, the air has grown thick with wireless communication, the platform on which radio, television, cellphones, satellite broadcasts, Wi-Fi, GPS, remote controls and hundreds of other technologies rely. And yet, despite wireless communication becoming a ubiquitous presence in modern life, the underlying infrastructure has remained largely invisible.

Every day, we use it to read the news, chat to friends, navigate through cities, post photos to our social networks and call for help. These systems make up a huge and integral part of our lives, but the signals that support them remain intangible. If you have ever wandered in circles to find a signal for your cellphone, you will know what I mean.

Phantom Terrains opens the door to this world to a small degree by tuning into these fields. Running on a hacked iPhone, the software exploits the inbuilt Wi-Fi sensor to pick up details about nearby fields: router name, signal strength, encryption and distance. This wasn’t easy. Reams of cryptic variables and numerical values had to be decoded by changing the settings of our test router and observing the effects.

“On a busy street, we may see over a hundred independent wireless access points within signal range,” says Jones. The strength of the signal, direction, name and security level on these are translated into an audio stream made up of a foreground and background layer: distant signals click and pop like hits on a Geiger counter, while the strongest bleat their network ID in a looped melody. This audio is streamed constantly to a pair of hearing aids donated by US developer Starkey. The extra sound layer is blended with the normal output of the hearing aids; it simply becomes part of my soundscape. So long as I carry my phone with me, I will always be able to hear Wi-Fi.

Silent soundscape

From the roar of Oxford Circus, I make my way into the close silence of an anechoic booth on Harley Street. I have been spending a lot of time in these since 2012, when I was first diagnosed with hearing loss. I have been going deaf since my 20s, and two years ago I was fitted with hearing aids which instantly brought a world of missing sound back to my ears, although it took a little longer for my brain to make sense of it.

Recreating hearing is an incredibly difficult task. Unlike glasses, which simply bring the world into focus, digital hearing aids strive to recreate the soundscape, amplifying useful sound and suppressing noise. As this changes by the second, sorting one from the other requires a lot of programming.

In essence, I am listening to a computer’s interpretation of the soundscape, heavily tailored to what it thinks I need to hear. I am intrigued to see how far this editorialisation of my hearing can be pushed. If I have to spend my life listening to an interpretative version of the world, what elements could I add? The data that surrounds me seems a good place to start.

Mapping digital fields isn’t a new idea. Timo Arnall’s Light Painting Wi-Fi saw the artist and his collaborators build a rod of LEDs that lit up when exposed to digital signals, and carried it through the city at night. Captured in long exposure photographs, the topographies of wireless networks appear as a ghostly blue ribbon that waxes and wanes to the strength of nearby signals, revealing the digital landscape.

“Just as the architecture of nearby buildings gives insight to their origin and purpose, we can begin to understand the social world by examining the network landscape,” says Jones. For example, by tracing the hardware address transmitted with the Wi-Fi signal, the Phantom Terrains software can trace a router’s origin. We found that residential areas were full of low-security routers whereas commercial districts had highly encrypted routers and a higher bandwidth.

Despite the information gathered, most people would balk at the idea of being forced to listen to the hum and crackle of invisible fields all day. How long I will tolerate the additional noise in my soundscape remains to be seen. But there is more to the project than a critique of digital transparency.

With the advent of the internet of things, our material world is becoming ever more draped in sensors, and it is important to think about how we might make sense of all this information. Hearing is a fantastic platform for interpreting dynamic, continuous, broad spectrum data.

Its use in this way is being aided by a revolution in hearing technology. The latest models, such as the Halo brand used in our project and ReSound’s Linx, boast a specialised low-energy Bluetooth function that can link to compatible gadgets. This has a host of immediate advantages, such as allowing people to fine-tune their hearing aids using a smartphone as an interface. More crucially, the continuous connectivity elevates hearing aids to something similar to Google Glass – an always-on, networked tool that can seamlessly stream data and audio into your world.

Already, we are talking to our computers more, using voice-activated virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and OK Google. Always-on headphones that talk back, whispering into our ear like discreet advisers, might well catch on ahead of Google Glass.

“The biggest challenge is human,” says Jones. “How can we create an auditory representation that is sufficiently sophisticated to express the richness and complexity of an ever-changing network infrastructure, yet unobtrusive enough to be overlaid on our normal sensory experience without being a distraction?”

Only time will tell if we have succeeded in this respect. If we have, it will be a further step towards breaking computers out of the glass-fronted box they have been trapped inside for the last 50 years.

Auditory interfaces also prompt a rethink about how we investigate data and communicate those findings, setting aside the precise and discrete nature of visual presentation in favour of complex, overlapping forms. Instead of boiling the stock market down to the movement of one index or another, for example, we could one day listen to the churning mass of numbers in real time, our ears attuned for discordant melodies.

In Harley Street, the audiologist shows me the graphical results of my tests. What should be a wide blue swathe – good hearing across all volume levels and sound frequencies – narrows sharply, permanently, at one end.

There is currently no treatment that can widen this channel, but assistive hearing technology can tweak the volume and pitch of my soundscape to pack more sound into the space available. It’s not much to work with, but I’m hoping I can inject even more into this narrow strait, to hear things in this world that nobody else can.