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A Gift to Change the World

What to get for someone who has everything? Answer: a laptop for someone who has nothing. The One Laptop Per Child initiative is an audacious, worthwhile goal. The idea is to create an inexpensive, yet well-designed laptop for children in developing countries. It's the ultimate in inclusive thinking, really. You may wonder why poor children who are still struggling with basic needs would want laptop computers, but the answer is that it's not about laptops--it's about education. Education isn't something you start on only when all other needs are met--it's something you give in parallel to other aid.

If you want to play around with one yourself, you can "give one, get one" for $399, so that both you and an underprivileged child each get one. Or you can simply give as many as you want.

The Value of Education

If you'd like to explore that line of thought, I recommend the web game Ayiti: The Cost of Life. On the one hand, it's a simulation game where you make optimization choices about resources. On the other hand, it's education for rich people about the value of education for poor people. In Ayiti, I found that the the struggle of just getting by in life under such harsh conditions was overwhelming. Furthermore, I found that education was best way out of the downward spiral. Yes, I know that this is a simulation game made to have a message, but sometimes it helps to "feel the message in your bones" rather than have someone just say it.

OLPC Missions

I like that OLPC has these requirements that they won't compromise one.

1) Kids MUST own these laptops and be able to take them home. In order for them to really learn, they need time to tinker, and play with them as much as they want. There can't be any schemes where really the school owns them and takes them away.

2) It's for young kids. Their target is 6 - 12 years old.

3) Saturation. Entire schools get these laptops all at once. It's not one laptop per school or per class, but one laptop per CHILD. No one is left out.

4) Internet connection. The laptops must be able to connect to the internet. If this is not possible where the children are, then OLPC will help build the network there, making it possible.

5) Software must be free and open source. If the needs of children change, the software can change to suit it. Also, it's important to allow children to modify the software itself as part of the learning process.

OLPC Features

Back to this $100 laptop. It's currently $188 if you buy by the 1000s, or $199 for one, so they haven't reached the target yet. (In 2010, the second model is projected to cost only $75, so they're getting there!) What they have achieved is remarkable though. The laptop has longer range networking than the laptop you're using right now. Those cute ears it has create an ad-hoc mesh network with other laptops of its kind, greatly extending the range of net connections in villages that have lots of laptops. (Cleverly, you have to flip the ears up to even open the laptop.) It has two screen modes: a color mode and a black and white mode with 3x the resolution, made for daylight viewing. It uses solid state memory, so it has no hard drive with moving parts. It does not require an electrical outlet: you can power it with a hand-crank or a solar panel. For that to even work, it has to an amazingly low power device. It runs on only about 2 Watts(!) because that's about the amount of power you can generate with your upper body strength. To top it off, it's a lot more rugged and durable than the laptop you're using now.

The Operating System(s)

The OS is called Sugar, based on Linux. In a controversial move, some versions of the laptop can also dual boot to Windows XP, a move that OLPC felt was necessary to convince education ministers of some countries to buy the laptops. The software isn't based on folders, hierarchies, and applications like we're used to. Instead, it's divided into "activities", each with their own data management in an effort to be easier for non-technical users to understand. There's no need to save and the system is designed to prevent any accidental loss of data. Even though it's meant for young kids to be able to figure out easily, it also has an incredible feature that allows users to see and modify the code of the programs running right in front of them! I can already imagine the excitement that will spark in kids all over the world as they discover the power to modify and create software.

Nicholas Negroponte

Nicholas Negroponte is the driving force behind this initiative. I think the earliest seed of this project was probably planted at MIT in 1997 while I was a student there. In that year, the MIT Media Lab held the 2B1 Conference. It was about how to use technology to bridge the education gap between developed and developing countries. In 2005, Negroponte finally went public with his new, big idea and it's been snowballing ever since.

If you want to see a man completely driven to make a project happen, a man surrounded by controversy, a man doesn't care what people think of him, a who simply won't give up--study Nicholas Negroponte.

You could do a lot worse than help Negroponte help the world's children through education.



Reader Comments (14)

NPR just did a pretty cool segment with the creators of this program. I'm sure it's available on their website, but I can't remember what show it was on. Worth a listen.

December 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAC

Education is the most important thing after basic needs. The more educated people in the world, the faster we can progress. I hope one of those kids with a OLPC cures cancer.

December 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMusedFable

I had a communications teacher who came from Africa who said Africa (and this probably applies to pretty much every 3rd world country) doesn't need food and clothes hand outs. It needs infrastructure and education and I was glad to see these were the type of device that could do that.

December 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKayinN

I remember in the beginning when OLPC was announced, and even when they showed the first of the laptops. The OLPC has been one of the coolest ideas I've ever heard of, and I definitely love the ideas and the technology they've put together in creating the little monster of a laptop. It's technologically sound, to the point where it does a great many things much better than our current laptops do, and on top of it all, it's a damn cute machine.

It's one of my secret goals to own one, and to be able to buy one for myself and to donate one as well. It's one of those things I feel strongly about: everyone should have access to basic education, and even to basic technology. The OLPC project could definitely help wonders in that. Can you imagine being able to give every single child every single textbook and reference they need through one of those? Never have to buy books, which saves a hell of a lot of trees. Self-powered too, so you don't have to worry too much about electricity. Easy to read in the bright-as-hell sun.

Everything about this is just so intelligently designed.

December 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenternothingxs

It's such a smart move to give laptops per class, so that no one is left out. I'm glad to hear of this (again), because it shows that there are many of us willing to help everybody else.

December 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobert August de Meijer

While I love the idea, I do have one question. Why does it cost more to buy one to donate and one for yourself than the ordinary price of 2?

December 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMark Conkle

Having spent a few hours of hands-on time with a couple OLPCs, they are truly marvelous devices. Every single ten-year-old who sees it is intrigued by it, thanks to the multitude of "extra" buttons that replace arcane OS features like Alt-Tab. The e-book reader mode is functional, the mesh network is way better than current "real" laptops, and there's a tiny little included webcam to boot. I wouldn't hold my breath about creating little Linux developers, though, as the "view code" button does not come with any kind of instructions.

If they made an OLPC Business Edition, I would rush out and buy one.

December 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobyrt

@ Mark Concle: Eh? The "Give One, Get One" package is $399, and giving two is $398. Well, I guess you're technically right then, but the difference is only a dollar. I bet you forgot to mentally round 199 -> 200, and 399 -> 400.

December 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAvatar Z

Wow, that thing actually sounds fairly awesome 3rd world or not.

@ Mark Conkle: I'm not sure why it would matter. If you want to give you save a dollar, if you also want one or just want one then you have no other option anyway. Sirlin already tells you they only cost 188 so it should be obvious that the main reason they're at 199 and 399 is for marketing. Think of that extra dollar as an extra tax for the frailty of human reasoning.

December 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbbobjs

In which language(s) is the software for this laptop written?

December 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterforty

I've read about this one laptop per child before. Not a bad idea to hasten education and development, so long as this doesn't turn into a huge government aid program where the american taxpayer has to spend billions on laptops for people in third world countries when Americans can't even afford healthcare here.

December 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterA.D.

honestly I learned the exact opposite when playing ayiti. I found that by far the most effective way to win is to rotate people in and out of jobs and the hospital with at least two working and at one in the clinic every season. education doesn't just cost money, it costs happiness and health.

January 8, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersteve

"I wouldn't hold my breath about creating little Linux developers, though, as the "view code" button does not come with any kind of instructions."

The ones with internet connections will have all the instructions needed for the few that look hard enough.

My programming teacher in high school grew up in the the third world, and taught himself C out of a book and wrote his code on looseleaf paper. He knew a programming language before he even touched a computer. Some people in this world can't be held back once given a fighting chance.

January 8, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersteve

looking cool......

February 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterloveisintheair
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