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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 3 hours ago - World

Reports: Up to 17 U.S. missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince earlier this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children were among up to 17 American Christian missionaries and their relatives kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, the New York Times first reported.

Details: The missionaries had just left an orphanage and were traveling by bus to the airport to "drop off some members" and were due to travel to another destination when the gang struck in Port-au-Prince, Haitian security officials said, per the NYT.

5 hours ago - World

Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews during a news conference in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Melbourne's stay-at-home orders will end five days earlier than planned, officials in Australia's second-biggest city announced Sunday.

Why it matters: The capital of the state of Victoria has had six lockdowns totaling 262 days since March last year. That means Melbourne spent longer under lockdown than "any other city in the world" during the pandemic, Reuters notes.

Venezuela suspends talks with opposition after Maduro ally extradited to U.S.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, in June. Photo: Gaby Oraa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key ally of Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro was extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. on Saturday to face money laundering charges in Florida, Bloomberg first reported.

Why it matters: Venezuela's government called off negotiations with opposition officials that were scheduled for Sunday in Mexico in response to the extradition of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for Maduro. Security forces placed six U.S. oil executives under house arrest hours later, per AP.