Connecting the Poor

Stephen DeAngelis

December 07, 2006

A year or so ago a group from Cambridge, MA, announced that they were going to develop a $100 computer that could be provided to children in developing countries. Since that announcement, the cost of that computer has risen 50 percent to $150, but that still represents an amazing breakthrough [“For $150, Third-World Laptop Stirs a Big Debate,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 30 November 2006].

When computer industry executives heard about a plan to build a $100 laptop for the developing world’s children, they generally ridiculed the idea. How could you build such a computer, they asked, when screens alone cost about $100? Mary Lou Jepsen, the chief technologist for the project, likes to refer to the insight that transformed the machine from utopian dream to working prototype as “a really wacky idea.” Ms. Jepsen, a former Intel chip designer, found a way to modify conventional laptop displays, cutting the screen’s manufacturing cost to $40 while reducing its power consumption by more than 80 percent. As a bonus, the display is clearly visible in sunlight. That advance and others have allowed the nonprofit project, One Laptop Per Child, to win over many skeptics over the last two and a half years. Five countries — Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria and Thailand — have made tentative commitments to put the computers into the hands of millions of students, with production in Taiwan expected to begin by mid-2007.

For $150, you wouldn’t expect many bells and whistles, but amazingly the computer has a web browser, a simple word processing program, other learning programs, and gmail service as well as wireless and video camera capabilities.

The laptop does not come with a Microsoft Windows operating system or even a hard drive, and the screen is small. And the cost is now closer to $150 than $100. But the price tag, even compared with low-end $500 laptops now widely available, transforms the economic equation for developing countries.

One would think that this breakthrough would be universally welcomed, but that is not the case. Some industry giants have weighed in with some big questions.

The detractors include two computer industry giants, Intel and Microsoft, pushing alternative approaches. Intel has developed a $400 laptop aimed at schools as well as an education program that focuses on teachers instead of students. And Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman and a leading philanthropist for the third world, has questioned whether the concept is “just taking what we do in the rich world” and assuming that that is something good for the developing world, too.

All of this attention has been a bit amusing, if not surprising, for Nicholas Negroponte, a prominent computer researcher and the founding director of the MIT Media Laboratory who conceived the project in the first place.

“It’s as if people spent all of their attention focusing on Columbus’s boat and not on where he was going,” he said in an interview here. “You have to remember that what this is about is education.” Seymour Papert, a computer scientist and educator who is an adviser to the project, has argued that if young people are given computers and allowed to explore, they will “learn how to learn.” That, Mr. Papert argues, is a more valuable skill than traditional teaching strategies that focus on memorization and testing. The idea is also that children can take on much of the responsibility for maintaining the systems, rather than relying on or creating bureaucracies to do so. “We believe you have to leverage the kids themselves,” Ms. Jepsen said. “They’re learning machines.” As an example, she pointed to the backlight used by the laptop. Although it is designed to last five years, if it fails it can be replaced as simply as batteries are replaced in a flashlight. It is something a child can do, she said. That philosophy, at the heart of the project’s world view, has stirred criticism for its focus on getting equipment to students rather than issues like teacher training and curriculum.

Although that sounds like fair criticism, the fact is that we are constantly surprised how people use technology once given to them. This project will likely produce pleasant surprises as well. This project begs for a Development-in-a-Box approach. Development-in-a-Box not only focuses on the implementation of best practices and internationally-recognized standards, it encourages communities of practice to come to together to help promote success and sustainability. Right now One Laptop Per Child and its critics seem to have faced off rather than seeking a way to work together to achieve the objectives upon which both sides seem to agree. It appears that such a condominium could occur.

“I think it’s wonderful that the machines can be put in the hands of children and parents, and it will have an impact on their lives if they have access to electricity,” Larry Cuban, a Stanford University education professor, said in an interview. “However, if part of their rationale is that it will revolutionize education in various countries, I don’t think it will happen, and they are naïve and innocent about the reality of formal schooling.”

The time to generate a community of practice is now. The machines are scheduled to go into production next year and, with tentative commitments for three million computers in hand and the possibility of another two million in the near future, it could become the best-selling portable computer in the world even though it won’t be offered to the public. With an agreement in hand from the Inter-American Development Bank to supply both loans and grants to buy the machines, those interested in raising the educational standards in developing countries should start figuring out how to achieve the biggest bang from this major investment of resources.

“Several years ago, I thought it was an illusion or a utopian idea,” said Juan José Daboub, managing director of the World Bank and an independent economic-development expert. “But this is now real and encouraging.” … The project leaders say they will employ a variety of methods for connecting to the Internet, depending on local conditions. In some countries, like Libya, satellite downlinks will be used. In others, like Nigeria, the existing cellular data network will provide connections, and in some places specially designed long-range Wi-Fi antennas will extend the wireless Internet to rural areas.

One of the really innovative aspects of this Wi-Fi connectivity is that it allows the children to stay connected, even after school, in effect making each computer a Wi-Fi hotspot for the community.

When students take their computers home after school, each machine will stay connected wirelessly to its neighbors in a self-assembling “mesh” at ranges up to a third of a mile. In the process each computer can potentially become an Internet repeater, allowing the Internet to flow out into communities that have not previously had access to it.

One real challenge for laptop designers was electrical power, which is not widely available in many of the areas in which the computers will be used. This challenge, too, was eventually overcome using a combination of a manual recharging mechanism and low power usage.

Each machine will come with a simple mechanism for recharging itself when a standard power outlet is not available. The designers experimented with a crank, but eventually discarded that idea because it seemed too fragile. Now they have settled on several alternatives, including a foot pedal as well as a hand-pulled device that works like a salad spinner. Ms. Jepsen’s display, which removes most of the color filters but can operate in either color or monochrome modes, has made it possible to build a computer that consumes just 2 watts of power, compared with the 25 to 45 watts consumed by a conventional laptop. The ultra-low-power operation is possible because of the lack of a hard drive (the laptop uses solid-state memory, which has no moving parts and has fallen sharply in cost) and because the Advanced Micro Devices microprocessor shuts down whenever the computer is not processing information. The designers have also gambled in designing the laptop’s software, which is based on the freely available Linux operating system, a rival to Microsoft’s Windows. Dispensing with a traditional desktop display, the software substitutes an iconic interface intended to give students a simpler view of their programs and documents and a maplike view of other connected users nearby.

Nothing breeds success like success and One Laptop Per Child needs to ensure that the first few programs are shining examples of what can be accomplished when you connect the disconnected.