Mars Needs Indians. Earth Needs Women. The Internet Needs Balloons.

on September 29, 2014

Question: What can a country with over a billion people and a per capita GDP of $4,000 do with the cash it costs to make a middling Hollywood blockbuster?

Answer: Send a spacecraft to Mars! On their first try!

We do not seem to be talking enough about this, so I will repeat: India sent a spacecraft to Mars!

For $74 million!

The craft is in an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet, ostensibly sending back information on the planet’s atmosphere and weather.

There is so much money and so much potential and so much to do and I am amazed and giddy by India’s achievement and also concerned we, humanity, are not doing enough, not trying enough, not spending enough. After all, Apple made about $1 billion — in profit — on the first weekend of iPhone 6 sales. Think of what that money could do — for all of us.

Question: What should we do next?

Answer: That I do not know, although I expect it to be amazing. Scary amazing, perhaps, but amazing nonetheless. To quote India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “when you are trying to do something that has not been attempted before, it is a leap into the unknown.”

For most of us, the unknown is scary. Spoiler alert: Prepare yourselves for crazy amounts of scary. The world is on the cusp of pan-global, transformational change enabled in large part to the fact all of us will soon be connected in real time, regardless of location, gender, social status. Barring any wrath of God scenarios, having all of us connected could very well lead to the completion of the original Tower of Babel dream:

“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

Go to Mars. Live at the bottom of the ocean. Save babies from dying. Radically extend our lives. When we can tap into the best from all of us, or each of us, the potential to achieve greatness — and at very low cost — becomes radically more possible. Much of the credit for the effort towards pan-global connectivity goes to two companies we typically do not care for: Google and Facebook. Both are committed to spending billions to connect the world.

If You Give A Girl A Smartphone

Internet access is taken for granted by many of us. We use it for work, learning and play. It’s so common in fact, we forget how liberating and empowering it can be. Yet, most of the world does not have access. Those that do not are disproportionately poor, female and/or disabled — and we are badly missing out by not being connected with them.

Consider that, per UNICEF:

  • Offering equitable education can increase a country’s GDP by a whopping 23% during that girl’s adult working life.
  • Educated girls around the world means less AIDS, less poverty, less disease.

Going to Mars is awesome. Remaking Earth equally so.

Mobile Internet devices have radically fallen in price. Connectivity to the global web, however, remains costly or impractical. Facebook and Google are working to change this.

Drones And Balloons And Satellites, Oh My

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is “prepared to spend billions of dollars” over the next decade to connect everyone.  Facebook’s “Connectivity Lab” is working on a variety of methods to make this happen. One way is via solar powered drones. These are expected to fly at 60,000 feet, well above commercial aircraft, and use FSO (free-space optical) communication to beam data via lightwaves.

Another method is via low Earth orbit (non-geosynchronous) satellites, able to beam connectivity over a wide swath of sparsely populated regions.

Google, long accustomed to moonshot thinking, has similar plans — and potentially more resources than Facebook. According to IEEE, Google is the only company that possesses “at least a strong (financial) stake in the five technological options” capable of delivering wireless Internet access to all areas of the world. The company recently acquired drone maker Titan Aerospace, in part to deliver Internet service to the world.

Google also has balloons, as you may have heard. Google’s Project Loon is comprised of balloons made of polyethylene plastic, 12 feet tall, 15 meters in diameter, and powered by solar panels — and wind. The balloons float along the stratosphere, about 12 miles above the surface, and beam 3G-equivalent Internet access to terrestrial antennas. They can stay aloft for more than 3 months.

What happens when these devices come crashing down?

What of regional, national and international spectrum rules?

Can cheap Android One mobile devices and floating Internet access meet the needs of billions?

I do not know. Nobody really knows, not yet. But India just sent a spacecraft to Mars so I do know all of these questions are addressable and the issues surmountable.

Flotsam and Jetson

I love this quote from Mark Zuckerberg:

When people have access, they not only connect with their friends, families and communities, they also gain the opportunity to participate in the global economy.

But make no mistake, Google and Facebook are operating in their own self-interest. Each new access point, each new eyeball, each new click, each new pageview, each new ad, they both profit. That’s what this is about, obviously.

Moreover, their profits entail very real consequences for all of us, not all of them good. I hate being tracked online. I hate the repeated intrusions upon my privacy — and the plans to effectively obliterate it entirely, such as through Google Glass. In so many ways, Google and Facebook are the leaf blowers of the digital realm, noisy, unceasing, their immediate benefit only for a select few. These giants earned our scorn, at least in the developed world.

But their efforts to connect everyone deserve our praise. For all I dislike about the Facebook and Google business models, these very same models are connecting the poor and the marginalized. Let’s not forget that. Google is connecting all of us to data and things. Facebook is connecting all of us to people and places. Their work will change us and change our world. I believe this change will be a net good.

The future is unknowable and scary and I do fear our senses will be endlessly assaulted but if that is the price we must pay to take everyone with us, I will take that deal.

Image via Vimana