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Alphabet's Loon hands the reins of its internet air balloons to self-learning AI


Alphabet's Loon, the team responsible for beaming internet down to Earth from stratospheric helium balloons, has achieved a new milestone: its navigation system is no longer run by human-designed software. Instead, the company's internet balloons are steered around the globe by an artificial intelligence -- in particular, a set of algorithms both written and executed by a deep reinforcement learning-based flight control system that is more efficient and adept than the older, human-made one. The system is now managing Loon's fleet of balloons over Kenya, where Loon launched its first commercial internet service in July after testing its fleet in a series of disaster relief initiatives and other test environments for much of the last decade. Similar to how researchers have achieved breakthrough AI advances in teaching computers to play sophisticated video games and helping software learn how to manipulate robotic hands in lifelike ways, reinforcement learning is a technique that allows software to teach itself skills through trial and error. Obviously, such repetition is not possible in the real world when dealing with high-altitude balloons that are costly to operate and even more costly to repair in the event they crash.