Juan Carlos Castillo, a state official in rural Mexico, had never received a call like this before. What looked like a giant plastic jellyfish with a blinking LED had fallen from the sky onto a farmer’s field. “It really caused panic,” he says. “I imagined that it could be espionage.” Then Castillo noticed a phone number attached to the floppy artifact. He called it and got through to Google’s parent Alphabet, in California.
Castillo’s rural community had been visited by a giant helium Loon balloon developed by Alphabet’s X lab as an alternative to conventional cell towers. He relates his experience in the sixth episode of Sleepwalkers, a podcast that explores the artificial intelligence revolution. This installment considers the powerful global infrastructure being built by Alphabet and other giant tech companies such as Amazon—and asks whether it is making them too powerful.
Alphabet’s AI-piloted Loon balloons are still experimental, but they illustrate the international clout of big tech companies and their infrastructure. After hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico’s cell networks in 2017, Alphabet got the country back online by steering its stratospheric inflatables over the island. Loon balloons also helped out in Peru after a 2019 earthquake damaged cell networks.
The head of X, Astro Teller, tells Sleepwalkers that his lab stays away from anything that wouldn’t benefit society. But some people say relying on big tech companies’ good intentions isn’t enough. The internet balloons, undersea cables, and dominant search engines and online stores of companies like Alphabet and Amazon prompt fears that these companies can push around not only their customers but also governments.
As digital technology becomes more central to business, government, and society, critics of tech giants’ power say they should be subject to new regulations. “They’ve emerged as gatekeepers,” says Lina Khan, who catalyzed the recent discussion about tech regulation with a 2017 paper arguing that Amazon needs to be reined in. “If you’re trying to delete these firms from all aspects of your life, it actually becomes very difficult to live in modern day society.”
AI—so central to many visions of the future—may be a technology that naturally concentrates power within big companies. Jack Clark, policy director at independent AI lab OpenAI, says cutting edge AI projects now require access to vast stocks of data and computing power. Governments and academia are already finding it a challenge to keep up. “Innovation and technical decisions will remain in private hands,” Clark says.
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