Electronic Design

Technology’s Higher Purpose Is Education

Every year, my daughter’s school has a drive to collect gently used books for a neighboring low-income school district. Many of these children, we are told, do not have a single book to call their own. But even worse is that many children worldwide do not receive any education at all.

Education is key to eradicating hunger, disease, and poverty in developing nations by improving agricultural productivity, health care, and business opportunities. It’s also key to stabilizing the political and social structures of regions that find themselves in constant flux. Yet as of 2000, roughly 25% of the young-adult and adult populations of such nations were illiterate and without schooling. If allowed to persist, such conditions can only lead to further destabilization and to a wider gap between the haves and the have-nots, leaving entire societies without the means with which to dig themselves out of poverty.

But technology can be a great facilitator of education, a great equalizer, and a great agent for empowerment. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals initiative has a number of potentially far-reaching objectives. One of these is to ensure that children everywhere will have access to a full course of primary schooling by 2015. Such a goal is virtually unachievable without broad application of advanced technology. But the good news is that some large technology providers are already on board to help.

Recently, Intel announced its intention to speed deployment of WiMAX wireless broadband technology in southeast Asia. The giant chipmaker will partner with local governments and telecommunications companies in the Asian Broadband Campaign. The program is not entirely altruistic on Intel’s part, of course, as the trial effort will provide a testbed in which the company’s silicon can be proven for use in other, more affluent regions that can pay full price for the technology.

But for the campaign’s beneficiaries in that region, broad availability of WiMAX technology goes hand in hand with the U.N. Millennium Development program’s goal of establishing a technology infrastructure. That infrastructure can then serve as the underpinning for improved education and health-care efforts. Intel is helping to begin WiMAX trials in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines by the end of this year. Trials in Indonesia and Vietnam are expected to take place in 2006.

So let’s assume that the efforts of Intel and its partners succeed in establishing a wireless broadband infrastructure in southeast Asia (or any other impoverished region). That’s all well and good, but I can already hear you asking what good a network is without computers. Although the prices of computers continue to fall, today’s general-purpose PCs are still too pricey for mass consumption by the populations that most desperately need them.

Enter yet another initiative that seeks to make high technology available to indigent societies. MIT’s Media Lab, in association with a non-profit organization called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), is working to create a $100 laptop computer that will bring modern computing technology to kids in developing countries. The machine’s design was rolled out at MIT’s recent Emerging Technologies conference. MIT’s computer experts are working toward having prototypes ready in November. The founding members of OLPC include AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, and Red Hat.

Designing a $100 laptop isn’t a trivial task, especially since its design dictates a fair amount of ruggedness and flexibility. The design incorporates multiple power sources, most notably a wind-up crank arrangement that will enable the machine’s users to work completely off-grid. Its ac adapter and power cord doubles as a carrying strap. Innovative display technologies, borrowed from those used in low-cost DVD players, will enable the machine to shift from full-color graphics to black and white where sunlight is too strong for color. Packaging has to play a role as well, so the housing will incorporate rubber seals that will lock out dust and dirt.

Of course, some tradeoffs have to be made to reach the $100 price plateau. These PCs won’t be screaming fast, but they’ll be more than fast enough to serve their users well. In fact, with a 500-MHz processor and 1 Gbyte of memory, the machines will have enough horsepower to do everything but store huge amounts of data. They’ll rely on flash memory as opposed to traditional moving media for storage. The systems, which will support Wi-Fi networking and have ample USB ports for connection of peripherals, will run under Linux rather than Windows. They’ll also support peer-to-peer mesh networking in areas that haven’t yet been reached by infrastructure projects like Intel’s.

These machines will be marketed to ministries of education in developing nations. OLPC is already engaged in initial discussions with officials in Brazil, China, Egypt, and Thailand. Additional countries also will participate in beta testing. Production won’t commence until orders are in for five to 10 million units, but it’s anticipated that large quantities should ship by early 2007.

The OLPC program could have broad impact in the United States as well. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hopes to purchase half a million of the OLPC machines for distribution to middle- and high-school children in his state.

It’s only through grassroots efforts like Intel’s and OLPC’s that a networking infrastructure, and computers with which to navigate those networks, can be brought directly to the world’s poorer societies. Information is indeed power, and empowerment through technology can improve standards of living where before there was little hope. Children are our future, and perhaps technology can help break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and hopelessness that’s left so many behind in the past.

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