Inside Google X

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Inside Google X

My internship working on Internet balloons at Google’s secretive research facility


Ben Perez

Coe College

BEN Perez poses at the entrance of Google X. Photo by Sandeep Giri.

Innovations in communication have been a key part of human history. Each generation improves upon the work of the previous one to bring about a more-connected society. Just think about how Snapchat and text messages have influenced our ability to stay in touch with our friends and family today.

Without question, future technology will bring another wave of innovation, forever changing how we talk to each other. Many companies are working to push forward our capabilities.

This summer I landed an opportunity to work with one of the biggest players in today’s communication race: Google. As an intern at Google X, I joined Project Loon.

Loon’s goal is to provide Internet service to the world with balloons that use the winds in the upper atmosphere to navigate around the globe, eliminating the need for land structures. Being free from ground limitations could allow Internet access in places that have been hard to reach before.

The Amazonian rain forest, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Siberia could be connected using this new Internet source. These locations have long been either too remote, too uneconomical, or too environmentally sensitive to develop. With Loon, workers will not have to build towers in these extreme environments, and no ecosystems will be disturbed.

During my time at Google X, I used a combination of computer programs with preloaded optics equations and back-of-the-envelope calculations to validate an optics tool I developed. Science informed my entire project, whether the physics worked behind the scenes of the software program or was scribbled all over scratch paper. For instance, Snell's law, which relates the velocity of light in a medium to its angle of incidence, enabled more accurate predictions than a paraxial approximation. I used this understanding of how light truly interacts with lenses throughout the optics system I worked on.

As an undergraduate, I have worked in three primary types of research environments: academia, government, and industry. Each had its own culture. At Coe College, where I go to school, people have a lot of flexibility to seek out their own research project. But the pace of research is slower, and the main mission is to find new phenomena that do not necessarily have an immediate application. As for the government level, I spent a summer as an SPS intern working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Much of the research there was closely tied to federal priorities. In industry, at Google X, specifically, I was given a lot of autonomy and had plenty of funding, but I was expected to meet tight deadlines for the project and produce good results consistently.

The team I worked with at Google X was truly multidisciplinary, with experts not only in optics but in materials, manufacturing, and many other areas. The scientists and engineers at Google X have diverse backgrounds that come together to work toward an operable system. They know their work will impact potentially billions of people.

Think about the possibilities in a world completely connected by Loon, where people in all parts of the world can stay up to date on the issues that are important to them and seek information. Imagine if we utilized Loon to offer free education to children and adults who have no access to school. We possibly could uncover the next great physicist, someone who has natural abilities but no current access to a proper education, and let those skills flourish. Or help to educate and empower a child in an impoverished area to raise the standard of living in their community. Or provide a tool by which people in rural areas can communicate with help reliably during an emergency.

Loon has come a long way since Google’s leadership held its first brainstorming sessions about how to solve the dramatic problem of Internet access. The project pushes the boundaries of what is possible and could revolutionize communications. It’s one of the ways that technology is driving innovation, and I was lucky enough to be a small part of that progress. //

More Information

Interested in working at the National Institute of Standards & Technology for a summer? Explore the SPS internship program at Applications are due February 1.

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