The news: Alphabet X, the company’s early research and development division, has unveiled the Everyday Robot project, whose aim is to develop a “general-purpose learning robot.” The idea is to equip...

For now: The early prototype robots are learning how to sort trash. It sounds mundane, but it’s tough to get robots to identify different types of objects, and then how to grasp them. Alphabet X claims that its robots are currently putting less than 5% of trash in the wrong place, versus an error rate of 20% among the office’s humans.

The big idea: Robots are expensive and confined to performing very specific, specialized tasks. Getting robots that can operate safely and autonomously in messy, complex human environments like homes or offices is one of the biggest challenges in robotics right now.

The concept of combining robotics and AI is something a lot of companies are already working on, to varying degrees of success. The goal of the Everyday Robot project—building a robot that can learn to operate in many different situations—is hugely ambitious, and even if successful, this sort of capability is many years away from being realized.

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Google’s project Loon announced Wednesday it had signed a new deal to use its high-altitude balloons to connect rural communities in Peru to the internet. After several tests and limited-run...

The news: Loon’s agreement is with Internet Para Todos Perú (IpT), an open-access infrastructure operator that wants to connect 6 million rural Peruvians by 2021. Under the agreement, Loon will deploy its balloons to provide 4G/LTE service beginning in 2020, focusing on the country’s Loreto region, part of the Amazon rain forest. The balloons will attempt to cover 15% of Loreto and connect up to 200,000 people, many of whom are indigenous.

Why Peru: Peru and Loon already have an established working relationship—the company deployed its balloons in May after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake centered in Loreto knocked out much of the country’s infrastructure. Loon was also active in connecting Peruvians in the aftermath of devastating floods in 2017 (later that year, Loon deployed in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria as well). 

Loon also has a commercial contract with Telekom Kenya, but it’s awaiting final regulatory approval before it can begin service.

Can it stay for long? Loon’s solar-powered balloons reach altitudes of more than 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) above Earth and can cover areas within a 25-mile radius. Over the last decade, the company has improved the balloons’ life span to an average of 150 days (the record so far is 223 days).

The company hopes to improve longevity by installing better control systems to avoid turbulent stratospheric winds, which can exceed 180 miles per hour and flow in different directions at different altitudes. Incorporating AI-powered navigation that can automatically decide on flight paths to avoid rough weather would be a big step forward. DARPA is also currently testing new sensors that could spot wind speed directions from longer distances and give stratospheric balloons (not just Loon’s) a heads-up. If that technology doesn’t stay with the military, Loon and other companies might end up finding a use for it. 

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