Giving every child a laptop

Posted on August 20, 2006
Filed Under >Bilal Zuberi, Education, Science and Technology
13 Comments
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Adil Najam

olpc1.jpgBilal Zuberi

This is not a crazy idea: What would the world be in 20 years if each child growing up in today’s developing countries had access to a computer and internet, and being connected to knowledge sources locally as well as across the globe? Is it possible? Is it even affordable? and what good can a computer bring to communities where roti, kapra, makan are still the fundamental unmet needs.

Well, one visionary has an idea, and his idea is gaining popularity across the globe. That visionary is Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, who envisioned an educational eco-system for children in the developing parts of the world that revolves around the use of computers and connectivity.

He wanted to see a future where children in developing countries were not left perennially behind because they simply did not have access to the tools that others in affluent countries did. Aware of the economic situation in most parts of the world that has given the term digital divide a new meaning, Negroponte envsioned a laptop that would be available to children at a cost of less than 100 dollars.

The vision pf Negroponte, and the non profit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) that he created, is not just to promote another tech tool with overpromises of benefits – but to boldy address the critical technical and economic research areas that have hampered the availability of digital tools for the developing world. Ever since the first declaration at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2005, OLPC has set out to create a world class performance laptop that is not only unbelievably cheap, also creates a system for education and development of children who use them.

The $100 laptop is a mobile platform for kids, complete with a rugged weather proof casing, a color & black and white sun-light reable screen, 500 MHz processor, 128MB of DRAM and 500MB of flash memory. The laptops will have wireless internet, which will allow them to link up with mesh networks, allowing neighboring users to ‘talk’ to each other and create networks.

Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC organization believe that “Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration.” OLPC learnt that it would be possible to reduce the cost of the laptop to $100 only if millions of them were made (not to mention the many innovations in technologies that had to be done along the way). The mode they have adopted for reaching millions of children was by targeting a few countries that had large populations and represented different parts of the world: India, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina and Thialand were chosen as the initial partner countries.The laptops would be sold to the governments in these countries and then issued by the governments to schools on a One Laptop Per Child basis.

This initiative has gained a lot of momentum, but has also seen some opposition. The largest opposition came from what the OLPC members sometimes fondly call the Microsoft/Intel block which was unhappy that OLPC chose to go with a Linux system software and olpc2.jpgAMD chips. The reality is that Microsoft and Intel were also given a chance to join the movement early, but they passed on it, thinking it was just a crazy idea. Now they sense competition in some of their largest markets and are fircely lobbying governments against OLPC. In a recent move, India announced that it was withdrawing from the project, citing unsatisfactory expectations from the pedagogical theories.

However, some recent successes have bolstered the committment of OLPC core team members. Other countries are willing an dready to sign onto the project and the first prototype units (displayed in the photo attached here) are going to be tested in Thailand very soon. Argentina, Nigeria and Brazil are also signed up up for the delivery of millions of laptops. China and Egypt are still negotiating, and guess what, OLPC team has recently showed interest in talking to Pakistan as well. Some of us are trying to reach out to government officials to get them interested in at least learning from OLPC. I hope it will be given a serious thought by them.

I am very interested in hearing what the development community in Pakistan thinks of such projects, and if they have any experiences with introductions of digital gadgets into the hands of people from less-developed and more rural areas of the country. Do we need more tree-schools, or better training for teachers, or laptops with internet connectivity for both generating and accessing local knowledge? Gervase Merkham of Times Online, I think, sums up the OLPC philosophy and intent quite well:

Being connected changes the way people use computers. Before the internet, the data on a computer was mostly either there when it arrived, or created by the owner. Today, the vast majority of the information which flows past our eyes comes from somewhere else – which could be a different country, a different culture, a different perspective. Our biggest problem has changed; it used to be tracking down the oases of information. It’s now working out how to drink from the water cannon of knowledge. But given tools to manage the flow, no child should ever waste their time trying to turn lead into gold.

OLPC’s greatest gift to those children will not be the computer itself, but the ability to document, publish, share and build. When every child has a laptop, the chatter of a hundred million keyboards will deafen the world.

For additional information, visit:
OLPC; PCs for the poor: which design will win; Getting the World’s poor logged on
Podcast of Walter Bender’s (OLPC President) MURJ lecture on One laptop per child

13 responses to “Giving every child a laptop”

  1. Bilal Zuberi says:

    Folks-
    Khaled did not introduce himself but as a serial entrepreneur, he is now taking a different approach to entreprenership, and is now working with OLPC to get the $100 laptop become a reality. He is heading the Middle and Africa operations for OLPC. The discussion above is fantastic. From Simputer and the Intel $300-400 laptop to the $100 laptop, I think we get th epoint of where th etechnical world is headed. Computers are becoming a tool for learning, not a tool to learn (to steal from Khaled for a second). This is what it needs to be. Those of us who were in school during late 80s and early 90s will remember our computer class rooms with a few machines where computer-time was precious to come by. That approach NEVER worked, at least not back then and I don;t see why it would work now. The approach of computer clusters is outdated. People don’t even visit libraries any more, why would they go to a computer class room to learn how to use them. And then if they do not become ubiquitous in our lives, their impact is quite limited.
    One can argue what exact model, type and method is preferable to fit the community, but I feel quite convinced that easiest possible access to the digital worl dis absolutely necessary for really changing things on ground. Look at all of us who are on ATP. How many of us can say we would be able to visit ATP if we computers (and a networked world) had not become an intimate part of our lives. What would OUR world be like if we were stripped of our cell phones, PDAs and laptops for a few weeks?

  2. Farrukh says:

    My view has been that the idea is not a bad one but the target audience is not the right one.

    So, what is the need that is being fulfilled here. Is the belief that the one thing a poor kid really needs is a computer? Is that really the biggest priority? Or is it that if all poor kids had computers they could somehow fulfil their other needs with it? Neither is true. As someone in this field, I am a tech-optimist. I think it can solve many problems. But not all problems.

    The $100 computer is interesting but not exciting. No surprise there. Its certainly doable and should have been already done. What will be really exciting is a $300 computer. Yes. A $300 computer that will be the same as my current $1000 one. Now that will make a development difference. The real development need is not getting a minimum machine in the hand of every poor kid (you can do that with Nintendo). The challenge is getting full function machines cheap enough so that business and government and the economy as a whole can be connected and become efficient. In the US a shopkeeper buying a computer to do his accounts is a manageable decision and not something he has to save up for for a long time. In developing countries it is a big decision. When that changes, the faces of these economies will.

  3. Many intersting comments. I will try to shed light on some information that will counter many of the arguments made against the initiative. Looking forward to following the disucssion here as it unfolds.

    Ramesh’s comment raises a very important question about financing, manufacturing and corruption. Let me try to answer some of them. The Laptop will be manufactured by Quanta, which is an ODM that builds almost one third of the total number of laptops manufactured on the planet today, including those branded by Apple or HP, you can find more information on our wiki: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Hardware_specification#H igh-Volume_Design_and_Manufacturing

    The Laptop is being designed by OLPC, where OLPC is a non-profit organization. The funding of the organization comes from the member companies who are listed on OLPC’s website at: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Our_team. This funding will cover the non-recurring engineering costs of the Laptop, while the Laptops themselves will be sold at cost. That is one of the reasons why OLPC is a non-profit organization, which will help it achieve two goals, the first is to insure that it can sell the laptops at cost passing whatever profit a for-profit organization would have made back to the participating countries, and the second is that as the cost goes down, it can keep driving the price of the laptop down as opposed to use it to maximize share-holder profit as a for-profit company is required to do.

    The investment in repair and maintenance are likely to be much much lower than for a typical laptop for many reasons. The laptops are designed to be robust. On a high level, the two major failure causes for laptops today are not going to be causes of failure for those Laptops: there are no moving parts (hard disks, CD drives, etc.) and breaking internal connectors have been eliminated. Furthermore, the laptops are built with heavy duty plastic, have round edges that are rubber covered, are sealed when closed to even survive a walk in the rain, and are humidity and dust resistent.

    Even on the software side, the open nature of the software, means that kids themselves will be able to build the knowledge and the know how to maintain their laptops and trouble shoot and solve problems, and in addition to that local experience can be developed to fix software issues as nothing about the software is properietary and will only be solvable by a call to a specialist sitting in an office somewhere else around the world and with the only access to propriety knowledge necessary to understand where the problem might be or how to fix it.

    The laptop is not the silver bullet, it is part of the solution. It is important to feed children suffering from malnutrition, to give them medicine, and to give them a place to hide from the harsh sunlight or the life-threatening cold. But that is not mutually exclusive with also giving them the chance to use their innate ability to learn and their curious exploring minds to build a better future for themselves? You have to make available to them tools that will allow them to explore (access to knowledge), express themselves and learn from each other. Unless you do that, you will have robbed from the ability to grow into adults that have the ability to change their lives. Education and aid have to go hand in hand.

    Learning should extend beyond the classroom and onto their everyday lives, and that is why it is important for them to own a computer that is always connected and that allows them to create when they feel like creating, access knowledge (with internet being the largest body of knowledge known to us today) at anytime they need it or feel like accessing it.

    It should be a tool for learning, not a tool to learn. Think of it as a pencil. An example that you will hear a lot but is as relevant as it is repeated, is that you wouldn’t want a room for pencils, where kids go and use the pencils when they need them, instead you want to carry the pencils all the time, and the same goes for text books. Now if computers are too expensive and too vulnerable for children to carry all the time, the solution is to make them more robust and less expensive, and that has been the mission of OLPC.

    The crank did not go away. Putting the hand crank on the computer would have put mechanical stress on the Laptop and possibly causing it to fail sooner. For that reason, the hand crank was moved off of the laptop and onto the AC adapter. In addition to the hand crank a pull string option and a foot pedal option will also be available.

    A special display had to be designed and a lot of innovative electronics and software design had to take place to take the power consumption to a level low enough to make it viable to operate the laptop using manual power. Whlie the Laptop will be consuming few watts, typical laptops today consume between 15 and 40 Watts depending on model and use. We are currently shooting for 1 to 10 ratio in charge to use time. Which means that the child will need to charge the Laptop for 6 minutes for every hour of use using the available chargers (the ratio might be better depending on mode of charge). What else, the laptops will be using such low power that they will operate for 8-12 hours on a single charge.

    I hope this provides some good food for thought and some useful information. There is plenty more on OLPC’s wiki (http://wiki.laptop.org). But I’m also looking for further discussion here.

  4. Naveed says:

    I agree with Ramesh. The economies of scale are just not there to convince potential investors so that this dream can be realized. According to our estimate about half a million PCs sold in Pakistan every year are used PCs. A bulk of these sub-USD100 price range (excluding display & O/S) go to schools and colleges. Community based projects, if they are managed properly, can bring about a tangible change with technology available today. Corporate philanthropy can and does plays a role in this. The presentations that I attended envisaged power generation, teachers training & IT as part of a single initiative. I could not keep up with the project following the earthquake since the villages that were part of the study were in the Northern Areas

  5. Franz says:

    iFaqeer does well to sound the alarm of caution with regards to pegging our hopes for bootstrapping global development on a flaming red laptop with bunny ears. The way CNN and others report on wiring up the desperately poor almost has a voyeristic quality to it…a sort of, “What will happen when these slum-dwelling kids meet the product of the best minds in media?…Stay tuned.”

    And yet I wouldn’t be quite so hard on Negroponte as to peg him as a neo-colonialist parachuting in with his little orange laptop in one hand and fingering his mushtache with the other. I don’t see Negroponte’s motives as derogatory.

    What may be the most interesting developments from this project may not be the intended ones. I regard this in the same way I do those Mars shuttle launches or whatever it is NASA’s been up to. More or less useless for all intents and purposes of daily life for the world’s 6 billion people, but we sure get some cozy bed mattresses out of that space-age memory foam.

    In other words, the indirect consequences and discoveries realized by designing technology for those who live with the dust, dirt and erradic electrical power of daily life.

    Having said that, the very premise of this project bothers me, and I think someone else made this point as well: why a one laptop-to-one child ratio? Why not disaggregate access from ownership? How quickly we forget as we get rich, Visa’s CEO told a group of us at a private sector / poverty conference in San Francisco, that we really did used to share a lot of things (washers and dryers, telephones….books).
    This has been done brilliantly in the favelas of Brazil: http://www.schwabfound.org/schwabentrepreneurs.htm  ?schwabid=284&extended=yes

    Next, Ramesh Balakrishnan makes the obvious point about corruption. Orange is likely to look green to kleptocratic government procurers.

    Some further information that might clear up some questions…
    Eidee Man –
    “The one feature missing from the prototype I saw – the crank. It’s been clear – even before Kofi Annan broke the crank off an early laptop prototype – that a power-generating crank attached to the machine, like cranks are incorporated into FreePlay radios, might not work. Jim, who has designed the motherboard of the machine and has been focused on power consumption helped me understand why.

    Contrary to what you learned in The Matrix, human beings are lousy at generating electric power. Small children are capable of generating between five and ten watts, for short periods of time. Since conventional laptops draw about 6 to 8 watts with their screens turned on, that’s a real problem for a child-powered laptop. The laptop needs to get much less power-hungry…”

    “I suspect that low-cost computers designed by AMD and others are likely more appropriate for most users than the laptop. Again, that’s okay – the goal isn’t to capture the bottom end of the laptop market – it’s to give kids learning tools. If the laptop did become popular on the low end of the market, it becomes a target for theft… which is one of the reasons the machine is a brilliant shade of orange.”

    Power:
    “The prototype I saw didn’t have a battery installed, but the team has decided to use nickel metal hydride batteries rather than lithium ion. The rationale? Lithium is not very tolerant of voltage spikes – you need to regulate the power that enters the battery to prevent damage to it. Human-generated power is neccesarily spiky, so regulating that voltage means losing generated power. NiMH is less efficient than Li-Ion in terms of power transfer, but the ability to capture spiky power is worth the tradeoff… and MnH batteries are somewhat easier to dispose of in an environmentally conscious manner than Li-Ion.”

    http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=824

    John Paul, World Resource Institute:
    “Spreading millions of these laptops around the world is like scattering seeds in a field. Several will grow and bear fruit, many will not. Creating and promoting an enabling ecosystem now – one that addresses distribution, connectivity, training and maintenance – would go a long way to making sure those laptops land on fertile soil. ”

    http://www.nextbillion.net/blogs/2005/12/01/realit y-check-for-the-100-laptop

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