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The race to give nuclear fusion a role in the climate emergency | Energy

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On 8 August 2021, a laser-initiated experiment at the United States National Ignition Facility (NIF), based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, made a significant breakthrough in reproducing the power source of the stars, smashing its own 2018 record for energy released from nuclear fusion reactions 23 times over. This advance saw 70% of the laser energy put in released as nuclear energy. A pulse of light, focused to tiny spots within a 10-metre diameter vacuum chamber, triggered the collapse of a capsule of fuel from roughly the size of the pupil in your eye to the diameter of a human hair. This implosion created the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure needed for atoms of hydrogen to combine into new atoms and release, kilogram for kilogram, 10m times the energy that would result from burning coal.

The result is tantalisingly close to a demonstration of “net energy gain”, the long sought-after goal of fusion scientists in which an amount greater than 100% of the energy put into a fusion experiment comes out as nuclear energy. The aim of these experiments is – for now – to show proof of principle only: that energy can be generated. The team behind the success are very close to achieving this: they have managed a more than 1,000-fold improvement in energy release between 2011 and today. Prof Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial College London, said last month that “The pace of improvement in energy output has been rapid, suggesting we may soon reach more energy milestones, such as exceeding the energy input from the lasers used to kickstart the process.”

If you’re not familiar with nuclear fusion, it’s different from its cousin, nuclear fission, which powers today’s nuclear plants by taking big, unstable atoms and splitting them. Fusion takes small atoms and combines them to forge larger atoms. It is the universe’s ubiquitous power source: it’s what causes the sun and stars to shine, and it’s the reaction that created most of the atoms we are made of.

Scientists have long been excited about fusion because it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide or long-lived radioactive waste, since the fuel it requires – two types of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium – is plentiful enough to last for at least thousands of years, and because there is zero chance of meltdown. Unlike renewables such as wind and solar power, plants based on fusion would also take up little space compared with the power they would be able to generate.

The Tokamak of the Joint European Torus (Jet) at the Culham Science Centre – which will soon to attempt to produce the largest amount of fusion energy so far.
The Tokamak of the Joint European Torus (Jet) at the Culham Science Centre – which will soon to attempt to produce the largest amount of fusion energy so far. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

However, because the NIF’s breakthrough is about demonstrating the principle only, the total amount of energy generated is not very impressive; it’s only just enough to boil a kettle. Nor does the gain measurement account for the energy used to run the facility, just what’s in the laser pulse. Despite this, it is nevertheless a landmark moment in the decades-long quest to produce fusion energy and use it to power the planet – which is, perhaps, the greatest scientific and technological challenge humanity has ever undertaken.

Although the experiment may have happened in a vacuum, NIF’s advance has not, and the pace of progress in fusion may surprise some long-time sceptics. Even Dr Mark Herrmann, head of the NIF’s fusion programme, says the latest development was “a surprise to everyone”. Many recent advances have been made with a different type of fusion device, the tokamak: a doughnut-shaped machine that uses a tube of magnetic fields to confine its fuel for as long as possible. China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (East) set another world record in May by keeping fuel stable for 100 seconds at a temperature of 120m degrees celsius – eight times hotter than the sun’s core. The world’s largest ever magnetic fusion machine, Iter, is under construction in the south of France and many experts think it will have the scale needed to reach net energy gain. The UK-based Joint European Torus (Jet), which holds the current magnetic fusion record for power of 67%, is about to attempt to produce the largest total amount of energy of any fusion machine in history. Alternative designs are also being explored: the UK government has announced plans for an advanced tokamak with an innovative spherical geometry, and “stellarators”, a type of fusion device that had been consigned to the history books, are enjoying a revival having been enabled by new technologies such as superconducting magnets.

This is a lot of progress, but it’s not even the biggest change: that would be the emergence of private sector fusion firms. The recently formed Fusion Industry Association estimates that more than $2bn of investment has flooded into fusion startups. The construction of experimental reactors by these firms is proceeding at a phenomenal rate: Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has its origins in MIT research, has begun building a demonstration reactor in Massachusetts; TAE Technologies has just raised $280m to build its next device; and Canadian-based General Fusion has opted to house its new $400m plant in the UK. This will be constructed in Oxfordshire, an emerging hotspot for the industry that is home to private ventures First Light Fusion and Tokamak Energy as well as the publicly funded Jet and Mast (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) Upgrade devices run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Some of the investors in these firms have deep pockets: Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Legal & General, and Chevron have all financed enterprises pursuing this new nuclear power source. For now, publicly funded labs are producing results a long way ahead of the private firms – but this could change.

With such progress, interest, and investment – and net energy gain perhaps just one or two more improvements away – perhaps it’s time to retire the old joke, so cliched it has been banned by editors at the Economist, that “fusion is 30 years away… and always will be”.

Junior UK science minister Amanda Solloway and Nick Hawker, CEO of First LIght Fusion, inspecting the company’s £1.1m “Big Gun” device, which the Oxfordshire firm hopes will help them achieve fusion and deliver clean energy.
Junior UK science minister Amanda Solloway and Nick Hawker, CEO of First LIght Fusion, inspecting the company’s £1.1m “Big Gun” device, which the Oxfordshire firm hopes will help them achieve fusion and deliver clean energy. Photograph: Matt Alexander/PA

But it does depend on what we mean by “fusion” in that context; the scientists and their backers are now focusing on the bigger objective of fusion as a viable power source like fission, solar or wind. This requires far more than just “breakeven” in energy: a functioning fusion power plant would probably need at least 30 times the energy out for energy put in. However, scaling up the gain in energy is but one difficulty in making fusion a viable power source. A commercial reactor will have to solve several tricky engineering problems such as extracting the heat energy and finding materials that will withstand the relentless bombardment the reactor chamber will receive over its lifetime. Fusion reactors must also be self-sufficient in tritium, one of the two types of hydrogen that are fed in as fuel. For this, it is necessary to surround the reactor chamber with lithium because its atoms are converted to tritium when struck by the most energetic products of fusion – and this process has yet to be demonstrated at scale.

Those pursuing fusion have long known of the obstacles, but – with limited resources – achieving the immediate goal of gain has been a bigger priority. That’s beginning to change as fusion scientists and engineers look beyond scientific proof of principle. Around the world, several recently opened facilities are dedicated to solving these problems and, although they’re not trivial, everyone in fusion is confident that the obstacles can be overcome: progress depends on investment and will.

To find examples of how these two factors can be transformative, look no further than the pandemic. A sudden shot of both investment and motivation transformed the use of mRNA to fight disease from a wild idea to an accepted technology in the form of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Katalin Karikó, whose foundational work on mRNA has been key to the success of the technology, had the will to persevere for many years with little recognition and even less funding. Her dedication, and that of her colleagues, combined with a massive investment in development, testing and deployment is what enabled the vaccines to be ready in record time. The world wanted this, and we made it happen.

Global heating has made the need to turn carbon-free fusion energy into a usable power source ever more urgent. The world’s response thus far has been lackadaisical: it’s 2021 and more than 80% of global primary energy consumption still comes from coal, oil and gas. Fossil fuel consumption actually increased between 2009 and 2019 (though it fell in 2020 as most of the world locked down to help prevent the spread of Covid-19). While progress to date has been slow, most nations have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Dr Ajay Gambhir, a senior policy research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London, says most electricity generation needs to come from near-zero carbon sources as soon as 2030 in order to achieve this. Dr Michael Bluck, also of the Grantham Institute, expresses serious doubts that commercial fusion energy will be ready in time, saying that it is “very difficult to see this [conventional tokamaks] happening until after 2050” and that laser fusion has “another 50 years to go, if at all”.

Construction of the magnetic Tokamak of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) in south-eastern France. The project is a collaboration between 35 countries.
Construction of the magnetic Tokamak of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) in south-eastern France. The project is a collaboration between 35 countries. Photograph: Clement Mahoudeau/AFP/Getty Images

Those working in fusion do recognise that time is of the essence, and it’s part of what is motivating the recent acceleration. The startups’ vision necessarily sees fusion power being deployed at an unprecedented rate. “If we want to contribute to net zero by 2050 we need to be building plants, multiple, in the 2040s,” Nick Hawker, CEO of First Light Fusion, tells me. And who says the fusion firms couldn’t do it with the right tailwind? We would never have believed that a vaccine, let alone the first mRNA vaccine, could be developed and approved within a year instead of over decades.

The scale of the climate challenge is so immense that we need to throw the kitchen sink at it. That means renewables, fission, energy storage, carbon capture, and any other lifeline humanity can grab. If the world doesn’t have the will to at least try to deploy fusion energy too, it would be a missed opportunity. Fusion could afford people in developing countries the same energy consumption opportunities as people in developed nations enjoy today – rather than the global cutbacks that may be necessary otherwise. And we are likely to need fusion well beyond 2050, too: as a source of large-scale power to extract the carbon dioxide we’ve already put into the atmosphere, and because it’s the only feasible way we can explore space beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity.

Whether commercial fusion energy is ready in time to help with global warming or not depends on us as a society and how badly we want – no, need – star power on our side.

Arthur Turrell is the author of The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Beeban Kidron v Silicon Valley: one woman’s fight to protect children online | Beeban Kidron

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When she first began talking to her peers in the House of Lords about the rights of children on the internet, Baroness Kidron says she looked like “a naysayer”, like someone who was “trying to talk about wooden toys” or, in her husband’s words, like “one middle-aged woman against Silicon Valley”. It was 2012 and the film-maker and recently appointed life peer was working on her documentary InRealLife, spending “hundreds of hours in the bedrooms of children” to discover how the internet affects young lives. What she saw disturbed her.

“I did what they were doing – gaming, falling in love, watching pornography, going to meet-ups, making music – you name it, it happened,” Beeban Kidron says. The film explored everything from children’s exposure to porn, to rampant online bullying, to the way privacy is compromised online. But Kidron noticed that one thing underpinned it all: on the internet, nobody knows you’re a kid. “Digital services and products were treating them as if they were equal,” she says. “The outcome of treating everyone equally is you treat a kid like an adult.”

Almost a decade later, Kidron has pushed through a Children’s Code that hopes to change this landscape for ever. The Age Appropriate Design Code, an amendment to the 2018 Data Protection Act, came into effect this month. It requires online services to “put the best interests of the child first” when designing apps, games, websites and internet-connected toys that are “likely” to be used by kids.

In total, there are 15 standards that companies need to adhere to in order to avoid being fined up to 4% of their global turnover. These include offering “bite-size” terms and conditions for children; giving them “high privacy” by default; turning off geolocation and profiling; and avoiding “nudge techniques” that encourage children to turn off privacy settings. The code, which will be enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), also advises against “using personal data in a way that incentivises children to stay engaged”, such as feeding children a long string of auto-playing videos one after the other.

The code was introduced in September 2020, but offered companies a 12-month transition period, in this time the world’s tech giants have seemingly begun responding to the sting of Kidron’s sling. Instagram now prevents adults from messaging children who don’t follow them on the app, while anyone under 16 who creates an account will have it set to private by default. TikTok has implemented a bedtime for notifications; teens aged 13-15 will no longer be pinged after 9pm. Meanwhile, YouTube has turned off autoplay for users aged 13-17, while Google has blocked the targeted advertising of under-18s.

But hang on, why does TikTok’s bedtime only apply to those 13 and over? Are toddlers OK to use the app until 2am? You’ve just spotted the first flaw in the plan. While social media sites require users to be at least 13 to sign up for their services (in line with America’s 21-year-old Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), a quick glance at reality shows that kids lie about their age in order to snap, share and status-update. Creating a system in which children can’t lie, by, for example, necessitating that they provide ID to access an online service, ironically risks compromising their privacy further.

Social video app TikTok has introduced a “bedtime” for notifications for users aged 13-15.
Social video app TikTok has introduced a “bedtime” for notifications for users aged 13-15. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/Rex/Shutterstock

“There is nothing that stops us having a very sophisticated age-check mechanism in which you don’t even know the identity of the person, you just know that that they’re 12,” Kidron argues, pointing to a report on age verification that she recently worked on with her organisation 5Rights Foundation, entitled But how do they know it is a child?. Third-party providers, for example, could confirm someone’s identity without passing on the data to tech giants, or capacity testing could allow websites to estimate someone’s age based on whether they can solve a puzzle (no prizes for figuring out the numerous ways that could go wrong).

Whatever the solution, Kidron is currently working on a private member’s bill that sets minimum standards of age assurance, thereby preventing companies from choosing their own “intrusive, heavy handed or just terrible, lousy, and ineffective” techniques.

How did Kidron go from looking like a “naysayer” to changing the landscape so drastically? Kidron began making documentaries in the 80s before working in Hollywood (most notably directing the Bridget Jones sequel The Edge of Reason). After becoming a baroness, she founded the 5Rights Foundation to fight for children’s digital rights. She says she had her “early adopters” in parliament, including the archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, Conservative peer Dido Harding and Liberal Democrat peer Timothy Clement-Jones. “That was my gang,” Kidron says, but others remained sceptical for years. “The final set of people only came on board this summer, once they saw what the tech companies were doing.”

The Children’s Code as a whole defines a child as anyone under 18, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). For Kidron, it’s about much more than privacy – “a child’s right to unfettered access to different points of view is actually taken away by an algorithmic push for a particular point of view,” she argues, also noting that the right to the best possible health is removed when companies store and sell data about children’s mental health. “It’s nothing short of a generational injustice,” she says. “Here was this technology that was purporting to be progressive, but in relation to children it was regressive – it was taking away the existing rights and protections.”

How did these claims go down in Silicon Valley? Conversations with executives were surprisingly “very good and productive”, according to Kidron, but she ultimately realised that change would have to be forced upon tech companies. “They have an awful lot of money to have an awful lot of very clever people say an awful lot of things in an awful lot of spaces. And then nothing happens,” she says. “Anyone who thinks that the talk itself is going to make the change is simply wrong.”

And yet while companies must now comply with the code, even Kidron admits, “they have to comply in ways that they determine”. TikTok’s bedtime, for example, seems both arbitrary and easy to get around (children are well versed in changing the date and time on their devices to proceed in video games). Yet Kidron says the exact o’clock is irrelevant – the policy is about targeting sleeplessness in children, which in turn enables them to succeed at school. “These things seem tiny… but they’re not. They’re about the culture and they’re about how children live.”

As for children working their way around barriers, Kidron notes that transgression is part of childhood, but “you have to allow kids to transgress, you can’t just tell them it’s really normal”. “The problem we have is kids who are eight are looking at hardcore, violent, misogynistic porn and there’s no friction in the system to say, ‘Actually, that’s not yours.’”

Yet problems also arise when we allow tech companies, not parents, to set boundaries for our children. In 2017, YouTube came under fire after its parental controls blocked children from seeing content made by LGBTQ+ creators (YouTube initially apologised for the “confusion” and said only videos that “discuss more sensitive issues” would be restricted in the future). Kidron says she’s “not a big takedown freak” and is “committed to the idea that children have rights to participate”, but can the same be said of companies hoping to avoid fines? Numerous American websites remain inaccessible in Europe after the implementation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws in 2018, with companies preferring to restrict access rather than adapt.

For now, it remains to be seen how the Children’s Code will be enforced in practice; Kidron says it’s “the biggest redesign of tech since GDPR”, but in December 2020 a freedom of information request revealed that more than half of GDPR fines issued by the ICO remain unpaid.

Still, Kidron is certain of one thing: that tech companies are “disordering the world” with their algorithms – “making differences of their terms for people who are popular and have a lot of followers versus those who are not” and “labelling things that get attention without really thinking about what that attention is about”. These are prescient remarks: a day after we speak, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook has a program that exempts high-profile users from its rules and has also published internal studies demonstrating that Instagram is harmful to teens. One internal presentation slide read: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Instagram’s head of public policy responded to the report in a blog post, writing: “The story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light.”

Whether or not Kidron was once “one middle-aged woman against Silicon Valley”, today she has global support. The recent changes implemented by social media companies are not just UK-based, but have been rolled out worldwide. Kidron says her code is a Trojan horse, “starting the conversation that says, you can regulate this environment”.

But this Trojan horse is only beginning to open up. “We had 14 Factory Acts in the 19th century on child labour alone,” Kidron says, adding that the code is likely to be the first of many more regulations to come. “I think today we air punch,” she says, when asked how it feels to have led the charge for change. “Tomorrow, we go back to work.”

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Thanks, Sir Clive Sinclair, from Reg readers whose careers you created and lives you shaped • The Register

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Sir Clive Sinclair’s contributions to computing and business are well known, and we’ve done our best to celebrate his life in our obituary of the electronics pioneer, who passed last week aged 81.

To mark his life we felt it appropriate to also consider his impact on Reg readers.

Like many others, your correspondent’s first computer was a ZX Spectrum. The machine led to my presence in these pages, because I eventually joined the Australian ZX Users’ Association (AZUA), which published its own magazine and invited contributions.

A die was cast.

I tracked down AZUA co-founder David Vernon who told us, by email: “We all loved Clive. We loved his foresight, his eccentricity and his desire to bring computing to the masses.”

Referring to the ZX80 and ZX81, Vernon added: “But we found him frustrating in equal measure. Why to save a few pounds did he give us such a crappy touch keyboard? Why not give us 4K of RAM and not 1K?”

“But even these irritations had a silver lining. They showed us that we didn’t have to put up with whatever a manufacturer gave us but we could improve on it. And this is perhaps Clive’s legacy to my generation — we could do stuff that we never imagined. Clive gave us confidence that we could do clever stuff too. And we did.”

“Honestly, it’s thanks to Clive that I now run my own publishing business. Without my early experience of writing and publishing computer programs and help pages I’d not be doing what I do today.”

Splash Screen for classic adventure game The Hobbit

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Similar stories poured in from around the world as comments on our appreciation of the great man’s life.

“For me it was the ZX 48K,” wrote commenter Mozzie.

“It got upgraded with a Saga 1, had an astonishing Saisho cassette player that never to failed to load anything except LoTR. Chuckie Egg, Dizzy, Wriggler, Harrier Attack, Target Renegade and even HiSoft Pascal… thanks Clive for giving me the means to feed my family the last 16 years.”

“So, so many aspects of my life are directly or only slightly indirectly related to my love for coding and electronics and tech in general, and that all stems back to those heady days of the early 80s, sat in my bedroom in front of my Speccy,” wrote another forum member, ChrisC.

Linus Torvalds was a Sinclair user: Among those influenced by Sir Clive was Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, who worked on a Sinclair QL before he turned to his most famous work. From 00:30 in the video below, he reminisces about his time using the QL.

Youtube Video

A commenter named Allwallgbr shared his experience working for Sir Clive for two years in the 1970s and described the time as “amazing hard working, fun packed years servicing audio products and demonstrating at Hi-Fi exhibitions.

“I enjoyed the work and the buzz of the company so much, no other employer came close in my entire working life.”

Readers also remembered Sir Clive as possessing a strange charisma.

“An absolute genius with just the right amount of barminess to be a proper British boffin,” opined a commenter with the handle John Brown (no body). “He even had the proper boffin’s bald patch and glasses.”

Others shared their experiences putting Sinclair kit to work.

“I wrote a text-graphic based D&D game, and fed in the entire D&D stats to help automate games,” wrote a Reg forums member named Danny 2.

Next, he tackled something harder. “I tried and failed to write a conversation simulator to pass the Turing test: more difficult than I expected.”

“I think I freaked my mum out when she heard noises at 6am. It was just my seven-year-old self who was desperate to find out whether SIN and COS would let me PLOT a circle on my birthday present ZX81,” wrote another commenter, who goes by the strangely apt handle 0x80004005. (We’re guessing it’s a Windows error code.)

An email ad for the Telecom Australia Computerphone

Sinclair’s FORGOTTEN Australia-only micro revealed!

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Sir Clive’s passing has hit some of you hard.

“I’m currently crying like a baby here. This has hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. This marks the end of the line for the largest chunk of my formative years, and possibly the greatest influence in my entering the career I have,” wrote commenter Stumpy.

“RIP to a massively flawed genius,” our reader added. “A man with ideas often far ahead of their time. I’ll be setting a glass of decent malt aside for you tonight.”

A few readers offered some Sinclair BASIC as tribute:

GOTO Valhalla, wrote Dr. G. Freeman

10 PRINT "RIP Clive you'll be missed"
20 GOTO 10

…came in from a netizen named Dazzler.

The legacy lives on: One measure of Sir Clive’s contribution was that emulators for his computers remain available to this day, even if some homages such as the Spectrum Vega+ went awry.

Classic games developed for the ZX Spectrum remain available in many forms, not just as image files for emulators. Manic Miner is now an app, as is Lords Of Midnight. Some other Spectrum classics have even been ported to Microsoft’s XBOX.

One of the folks we reached out to for a Sinclair memory was Shane Muller, an Australian tech entrepreneur who in 2019 threw a very good party to celebrate his thirty years in the tech business. At that event he brandished the ZX81 that started it all.

Shane’s response to news of Sir Clive’s death was to write him a letter:

Vale, Sir Clive. ®

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Alphabet’s high-speed internet project Taara is making waves in Africa

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Taara’s wireless optical technology was able to beam nearly 700TB of data in 20 days across the Congo River.

Alphabet’s internet balloon project Loon may be a closed chapter, but the company is finding new ways to use some of this technology to bring high-speed internet to remote and underserved areas.

Project Taara is Alphabet’s attempt to harness wireless optical tech to make fast internet accessible and affordable. In a blog post yesterday (16 September), the project’s director of engineering, Baris Erkmen, said that its wireless optical communications links are now beaming light-speed connectivity across the Congo River.

“I’m delighted to share that working with Liquid Intelligent Technologies, we recently helped bridge a particularly stubborn connectivity gap between Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he wrote.

Brazzaville and Kinshasa are only 4.8km apart, but because of the speed and depth of the Congo River, it wasn’t possible to establish fibre connection between the two cities. Instead, cables have to travel more than 400km to loop around the river.

Erkmen said that after installing links on both sides of the river, Taara’s technology was able to beam across nearly 700TB of data in 20 days with almost 100pc availability. While the connectivity won’t always be reliable in all weather conditions, he said he was confident it will “play a key role in bringing faster, more affordable connectivity” to the 17m people living in the two cities.

“Being able to deliver high-speed internet (up to 20Gbps) most of the time is a vastly better option than having millions of people miss out on the benefits of connectivity because the economics of laying hundreds of kilometres of cable in the ground simply don’t stack up.”

Project Taara’s predecessor Loon brought helium balloon-based internet to Kenya and delivered communications services to Puerto Rico and Peru following natural disasters in those countries.

Like Project Taara, it was part of Alphabet’s X research division that invests in ambitious but costly projects. However, Loon was shut down in January because it was unable to make a business case for the project and its path to commercial viability was “much longer and riskier than hoped”, according to X lab head Astro Teller.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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