The people in Pike County were witnessing a test of Project Loon, a breathtakingly ambitious plan to bring the Internet to a huge swath of as-yet-unconnected humanity—via thousands of solar-powered, high-pressure balloons floating some 60,000 feet above Earth.
Project Loon is another big idea out of the Google skunkworks, known as Google X. It’s a place where truly off the wall ideas get taken seriously.
DeVaul [now head of Project Loon] joined X’s small Rapid Evaluation team, whose assignment was to triage concepts, mercilessly separating the so-crazy-they-just-might-work ideas from the just plain crazy ones. “They are mentally plastic in their ability to see the world differently,” says Astro Teller, who runs the X lab.
Loon was quickly labelled “so crazy it might just work”. Over the last two years, DeVaul and his rapidly expanding team have taken the whole thing from the earliest almost home handyman stage (using “four latex balloons – bought online for about $100 each – [and] helium purchased from a welding supplier) to the brink of a full on trial with 300 balloons girdling the world in the 40° south latitudes.
It’s an astonishing story. Stuff like this shouldn’t really be able to happen. After all, people with visionary ideas generally don’t have pots of money to seriously tackle moon shots.
Nor are Page and Brin alone. Other tech entrepreneurs are also diverting some of their billions into their particular dreams. Elon Musk, for example, who made his initial pile via PayPal and is currently focused on Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Even Jeff Bezos’ private purchase of the Washington Post might just fit this mould.
Thing is, in each of these cases, money probably isn’t the real motivator. These guys have already got way more than any sane person could use in hundreds, maybe thousands of lifetimes. I’d guess they’re playing for some mixture of fun, glory and self-satisfaction at a deeper level. Doesn’t mean they won’t try to make them pay, not only to survive and be able to do lots more of these crazy things, but also because that’s one of the measures of having done it right.
If this [Project Loon in its full glory] happens, Google will not only bask in a feel-good glow—it will make some money too. No, Google X is not on a strict bottom-line regimen, the X lab’s Teller says, though his bosses require a “sanity” check once a project begins to rack up expenses. “As soon as you get sucked into making money as the goal, you leave behind the positive impact,” he says. “This is a Google-wide attitude—make the world a better place and the money is going to find us.”
This is obviously putting the best face on these matters. Many won’t like individuals wielding so much discretionary power and perhaps they’re right. Still, it’s not a concern I share, not yet anyway. Each of them probably has their legacy very much in mind and in their differing ways they’ll be playing to the gallery.