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Photo: Loon

A type of AI can be used to navigate balloons in the unpredictable conditions of the stratosphere, researchers report this week.

Why it matters: It's a demonstration of an AI making decisions in a messy real-world environment.

What's happening: Researchers at Google Brain and Loon used a form of AI called reinforcement learning to control a balloon over the Pacific Ocean for a period of 39 days.

  • The AI used historical weather observations and current reports to determine when to gain or lose altitude in order to find the best winds to keep the balloon's position. (It also monitored the balloon's power.)
  • The researchers augmented wind direction and speed data with randomly generated "noise" — giving the AI a range of possible wind conditions it could encounter in order to assess its current situation and future path.
  • The algorithm improved decision-making time and uses less power than the existing navigator. The balloon also spent a greater proportion of time close to its station, they report this week in the journal Nature.

The work "represents a big advance in the use of reinforcement learning for real-world applications," Scott Osprey of the U.K.'s National Centre for Atmospheric Science wrote in an accompanying article.

  • Balloons could be used for monitoring air quality and other aspects of the environment.

The big picture: Unlike board games or card games that algorithms have mastered where all the information is available or known, the real world presents partial information and plenty of unknowns.

  • "For me, the most exciting part and what will be a differentiator is the ability to reason about what we don’t know," says Marc Bellemare, a co-author of the study and a researcher at Google Brain.

What's next: Loon has already deployed the controller on its balloons that provide internet service to parts of Kenya, says the company's chief technology officer Sal Candido.

  • The next step, he says, is to try to use the new AI pilot to navigate balloons from launch sites, for example in Puerto Rico, to their final destination.

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong to put tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8, Schumer says

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

The state of play: Schumer announced the schedule after reaching an agreement with Republicans. The House will transmit the article of impeachment against the former president late Monday.

7 hours ago - Health

CDC extends interval between COVID vaccine doses for exceptional cases

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty

Patients can space out the two doses of the coronavirus vaccine by up to six weeks if it’s "not feasible" to follow the shorter recommended window, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

Driving the news: With the prospect of vaccine shortages and a low likelihood that supply will expand before April, the latest changes could provide a path to vaccinate more Americans — a top priority for President Biden.