Thursday, December 07, 2006

Technology Thursday: A $150 Laptop For American Kids

I remember the buzz generated a few months ago when somebody suggested that third-world children would benefit from a $100 laptop.

While that dream remains somewhat elusive, somebody has
come-up with a viable $150 version:
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — 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.

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.

That has not prevented the effort, conceived by Nicholas Negroponte, a prominent computer researcher, from becoming the focal point of a debate over the value of computers to both learning and economic development.

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.

Mr. Negroponte, the founding director of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory, said he was amused by the attention his little machine was getting. It is not the first time he has been challenged for proclaiming technology’s promise.

“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.

“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 debate is certain to enter a new phase when the machines go into full-scale production by Taiwan-based Quanta Computer, the world’s second-largest laptop maker. (The manufacturer, unlike the project itself, will make a profit.) Overnight, even though it will not be available to consumers, the laptop could become the best-selling portable computer in the world.

The project now has tentative commitments for three million computers and will begin large-scale manufacturing when it reaches five million with separate commitments from at least one country each in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Based on current negotiations, Mr. Negroponte says he expects that goal to be reached by mid-2007.

It got a significant boost on Nov. 15 when the Inter-American Development Bank signed an agreement to supply both loans and grants to buy the machines.

“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.”

Mr. Negroponte said the manufacturing cost was now below $150 and that it would fall below $100 by the end of 2008.

One factor setting the project apart from earlier efforts to create inexpensive computers for education is the inclusion of a wireless network capability in each machine.

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.

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.

“The soldiers inside this Trojan horse are children with laptops,” said Walter Bender, a computer researcher who served as director of the Media Laboratory after Mr. Negroponte and now heads software development for the laptop project.

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.

A video-camera lens sits just to the right of the display, for use in videoconferencing and taking digital still photos of reasonable quality. The computer comes with a stripped-down Web browser, a simple word processor and a number of learning programs. For e-mail, the designers intend to use Google’s Web-based Gmail service.

Only one program at a time can be viewed on the laptop because of its small 7.5-inch display.

Mr. Negroponte has been a globetrotting salesman for the project, winning Libya’s participation when he was summoned by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to a meeting in a desert tent on a sweltering August night. But there have also been setbacks. The Indian Education Ministry rejected a proposal to order a million computers, noting that the money could be better spent on primary and secondary education.

Mr. Negroponte said he had been re-energized by the recent arrival of the first 1,000 working prototypes. The prototypes, he said, will give him new ammunition to convince government leaders that his tiny machines can be a positive force for social development. [On a visit to Brazil on Nov. 24, Mr. Negroponte presented one of the prototypes to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.]

He said a program would be created to enable those in the developed world to underwrite a laptop for a child in a designated country and to correspond with the recipient by e-mail as a sort of “glorified pen-pal program.” But however attractive the idea of a $100 or $150 laptop, he said there were no plans to make it generally available to consumers.

“They should buy Dell’s $499 laptop for now,” he said. “Ours is really designed for developing nations — dusty, dirty, no or unreliable power and so on.”

In his two decades as director of the Media Laboratory, Mr. Negroponte often faced criticism because the institution’s impressive demonstrations of technology only occasionally led to commercial applications.

“He has spent his whole career being accused of being all icing and no cake,” said Michael Hawley, a computer scientist and one of Mr. Negroponte’s former students. To that kind of scoffing, he said, the laptop’s success would be Mr. Negroponte’s best retort.
If they can develop a tough, no-nonsense, and functional $150 laptop computer for use by the third-world's children, why can't somebody develop and distribute a version tough enough.... good enough.... and cheap enough... so that every child who attends an American public school may be issued one?

And why hasn't it been done already?

Maybe some of
these people can lead the effort if they can find the time to do so between taxpayer-funded sight-seeing junkets to China and other destinations in the Far East.
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