The Children's Machine

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The Children's Machine, or 2B1, is an education project for creating an inexpensive laptop computer intended to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. It was previously known as the $100 Laptop.

The computers will be rugged and Linux-based. Mobile ad-hoc networking may be used to allow many machines Internet access from one connection over the OLSR wireless protocol. The pricing goal is currently expected to start at around US$135-140 and reach the US$100 mark in 2008. The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child.

The laptop is being developed by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) trade association. OLPC is a Delaware based, non-profit organization created by faculty members of the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute the laptops.

History

OLPC is based on constructionist learning theories pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay and Mitchel Resnick, and also on the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital.[1] The founding corporate members are Google, News Corp, AMD, Red Hat, Brightstar and Nortel, each of whom donated two million dollars to the project. All three individuals and five companies are active participants in OLPC. In many respects it is the descendant of the 1997 eMate 300 (based on the Apple Newton), also aimed at the education market.

Negroponte showed two prototypes of the laptop on November 16, 2005 at the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia: a non working physical model and a tethered version using an external board and separate keyboard. The device shown was a rough prototype using a standard development board. Negroponte estimated that the screen alone required three more months of development. The first working prototype was demonstrated at the project's Country Task Force Meeting on May 23, 2006. The production version is expected to have a larger display screen in the same size package. The laptops are scheduled to be available by the end of 2006 or early 2007.

At the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced it would back the laptop. UNDP released a statement saying they would work with OLPC to deliver “technology and resources to targeted schools in the least developed countries”.[2]

The OLPC board of directors announced on December 13, 2005 that Quanta Computers had been chosen as the original design manufacturer (ODM) for the $100 laptop project. The decision was made after the board reviewed bids from several possible manufacturing companies. The company emphasized that there was a lot of work that remains to be done.[3]

Pricing

The project originally aimed for a price of 100 United States dollars. In May 2006, Negroponte told the Red Hat's annual user summit: "It is a floating price. We are a nonprofit organization. We have a target of $100 by 2008, but probably it will be $135, maybe $140. That is a start price, but what we have to do is with every release make it cheaper and cheaper--we are promising that the price will go down." [4]

Participation

See One Laptop Per Child for announcements of negotiations and commitments by countries and US states.

Retail

While the OLPC originally planned to make the laptop available only through governments, Negroponte has indicated that they may partner with well known brand-name manufacturers to create a commercial version, after production has ramped up sufficiently to supply the first five million units to countries. Selling for about $225, this retail version would subsidize units in the developing world.

Technology

2B1 will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop. It will initially have a flat LCD screen, but in later generations may use electronic paper such as e-ink. The laptop will be rugged, use innovative power (possibly a pedal), be Wi-Fi- and VoIP-enabled and a touch screen (including a separate writing pad).

Design requirements

Mary Lou Jepsen stated the hardware design goals of this device as:

  • minimal power consumption, with a design target of 2–3W total power consumption
  • minimal production cost, with a target of $100 per laptop for production runs of one million units;
  • a ‘cool’ look, implying innovative styling in its physical appearance
  • e-book functionality with extremely low power consumption
  • the software provided with the laptop be open source and free software

The software design requirements and the educational objectives have not been described publicly.

Various use models are currently being explored by the MIT Media Lab with the help of Design Continuum and Fuseproject, including: laptop, e-book, theatre, simulation, tote, and tablet architectures.

Hardware

The hardware specifications as of May 2006 are:

Features

  • CPU: AMD Geode GX2-500 at 1.1W, with integrated graphics controller
  • CPU clock speed: 366 Mhz
  • SVGA 7.5″ diagonal transmissive and reflective liquid crystal display used in one of two modes:
    • Reflective “sunlight readable” monochrome mode with 1200 by 900 screen resolution (for e-book reading outdoors—this is 200dpi)
    • Transmissive Color mode with approximately 800x600 pixel resolution with backlighting (for laptop use)

Depending on mode, power consumption of the display is between .1 and one watt.

  • 128MiB of Dual – DDR266 – 133 Mhz DRAM
  • 1024KiB flash ROM with open-source LinuxBIOS
  • 512MiB of SLC NAND flash memory
  • External SD card slot
  • VGA resolution (640x480) color camera
  • Wireless networking using an “Extended Range” 802.11b/g wireless chipset run at a low bitrate (2Mbit/s) to minimize power consumption.
  • Marvell 8388 wireless chip, chosen due to its ability to autonomously forward packets in the mesh even if the CPU is powered off.
  • Dual adjustable antennae for diversity reception.
  • Conventional layout alphanumeric keyboard localized for the country of use.
  • Dual five-key cursor-control pads; four directional keys plus Enter
  • Touchpad for mouse control and handwriting input
  • Built-in stereo speakers
  • Built-in microphone
  • Audio based on the AC97 codec, with jacks for external stereo speakers and microphones, Line-out, and Mic-in
  • 3 external USB2 ports.
  • Power sources:
    • DC-input, ±10–25V
    • 5-cell NiMH rechargeable battery pack, 22.8 watt-hour (82 KJ) capacity

Intentionally omitted features

  • no motor-driven moving parts
    • no hard disk drive
    • no optical drive (e.g. CDROM or DVD drive)
    • no floppy drive
    • no fans
  • no ATA interface (as there are no drives with which to interface)
  • no PC Card slot - But SD slot will be available.

Note that floppies, disks, CD drives, DVD drives, and many other peripherals can be connected via the USB ports. Further expansion is available through an external SD card slot.

A hand-crank generator was part of the original design, but Negroponte stated at a 2006 LinuxWorld talk that it was no longer part of the laptop, but a hand or foot operated generator can be included in a separate power unit.[5]

Power consumption

The power consumption design target is 4W total power consumption for the device in laptop mode. Consumption in e-book mode is estimated to be 0.3 to 0.8W.

In e-book mode, all hardware sub-systems are powered down except the monochrome display (including any display backlighting). When the user moves to a different page the system wakes up, draws the new page on the display and then goes back to sleep.

Display

The first-generation OLPC laptops are expected to have a novel low-cost liquid crystal display. Later generations of the OLPC laptop are expected to use low-cost, low-power and high-resolution electronic paper displays.

The display is the most expensive component of the OLPC Laptop. In April 2005, Negroponte hired Mary Lou Jepsen—who is expected to join the Media Arts and Sciences faculty at the MIT Media Lab in September 2007—as OLPC Chief Technology Officer. Jepsen is developing a new display for the first-generation OLPC laptop, which is derived from the design of small LCDs used in portable DVD players, which she estimated would cost about $35.

Jepsen has described the removal of the filters that color the RGB subpixels as the critical design innovation in the new liquid crystal display. Instead of using subtractive color filters, the display uses a plastic diffraction grating and lenses on the rear of the LCD to illuminate the colored subpixels. This grating pattern is stamped using the same technology used to make DVDs. The grating splits the light from the white backlight into a spectrum. The red, green and blue components are diffracted into the correct positions to illuminate the corresponding R, G or B subpixels. This innovation results in a much brighter display and a corresponding reduction in backlight illumination: While the color filters in a regular display typically absorb 85% of the light that hits them, this display absorbs little of that light.[6]

The remainder of the LCD uses existing display technology and can be made using existing manufacturing equipment. Even the masks can be made using combinations of existing materials and processes.

The display is transmissive with backlighting when used in color/DVD mode. The conventional cold cathode fluorescent lamp backlighting, which accounts for 30% of the cost of a conventional LCD, has been replaced with a lower-power, less fragile alternative such as white LEDs for use at low light levels. This form of backlighting should also improve the color gamut of the display.

The display is a reflective display (with no backlighting) when used in monochrome mode for displaying e-book pages.

It is unclear what mechanism is used to switch the display from monochrome to color/DVD mode. It is clear from the photographs at the OLPC web site that the mode change occurs with a change in use of the device. The landscape format color display is used in laptop mode, whereas the portrait format monochrome display in e-book mode, so the displayed pages can be “read vertically like a book”. This is the so-called “curl-up-in-bed mode” to enable reading of e-books for an extended time in bright light such as sunlight.[7]

It is also unclear how the pixels in the 1100 by 830 monochrome portrait display map to the color subpixels in the 640 by 480 color landscape display. Negroponte has said at the Technology Review’s Fifth Annual Emerging Technologies Conference that the monochrome display has four times the resolution of the color display. In current LCDs, each RGB color pixel is composed of three one-third width subpixels of each color that are one pixel tall. But in this display, it seems likely that a four-pixel square block in monchrome mode becomes a single color pixel in color/DVD mode. The mapping of the four pixels to three colors might use a 2 by 2 square RG-GB sub-pixel arrangement like that of the Bayer filter used in digital cameras to enhance the perceived brightness of the display. Perhaps two different green-hued subpixels are used to expand the display’s color gamut. The display dimensions do not quite match up with the display dimensions given by Jepson, though one can see that 1100 is close to twice 640 and 830 is close to twice 480. It is possible that this is the result of the current prototype using a current standard SVGA screen but the production version display may have 1280 by 960 monochrome pixels.

The dual-mode display was not operational in the WSIS prototype. The prototypes were shown with conventional transmission TFT LCDs.

Wireless networking

IEEE 802.11b support will be provided using a Wi-Fi “Extended Range” chipset. Jepsen has said the wireless chipset will be run at a low bitrate, 2Mbit/s maximum rather than the usual higher speed 5.5Mbit/s or 11Mbit/s to minimize power consumption.

Whenever the laptop is powered on it will participate in a mobile ad-hoc network with each node operating in a peer-to-peer fashion with other laptops it can hear and forwarding packets across the cloud. If a computer in the cloud has access to the Internet (either directly or indirectly) then all computers in the cloud will be able to access the net. The data rate across this network will not be high but similar networks like the store and forward Motoman project have supported email services to 1000 schoolchildren in Cambodia, according to Negroponte. The data rate should be sufficient for asynchronous network applications such as email to communicate outside the cloud rather than interactive uses, like web browsing, or high-bandwidth applications, such as video streaming. Interactive network communication should be possible inside the cloud.

The conventional IEEE 802.11b system only handles traffic within a local cloud of wireless devices in a manner similar to an Ethernet network. Each node transmits and receives its own data but does not route packets between two nodes that cannot communicate directly. Which additional protocols the OLPC laptop will use to form a wireless mesh network is not known.

It is unclear if the laptop will join the wireless mesh network if it is in e-book mode.

Keyboard and touchpad

Negroponte and Jepsen have said the keyboard will be changed to suit local needs to match the standard keyboard for the country in which it is used. Some versions of prototype were shown at WSIS with a detachable keyboard (tethered by a cord); however the working prototype demonstrated in May 2006 had a conventional built-in keyboard.

Beneath the keyboard is a large area that resembles a very wide touchpad that Jepsen referred to as the “mousepad”. Negroponte has said that this device can be used for “calligraphy” presumably to support languages that use ideograms. This also implies that it will support both fingers and pen-like devices. This extended touchpad might also play a part in the “accordion-like” use in e-book mode for moving to the next and previous pages. The trackpad was not operational in the WSIS prototype.

Enclosure

The enclosure is dirt- and moisture-resistant and is constructed with 2mm-thick plastic—thicker than typical laptops. It features a pivoting, reversible display, movable WiFi antennas, and a sealed rubber-membrane keyboard.

Software

All of the software on the laptop will be open source. The projected software as of July 2006 is:

Steve Jobs had offered Mac OS X free of charge for use in the laptop, but according to Seymour Papert, a professor emeritus at MIT who is one of the initiative's founders, the designers want an operating system that can be tinkered with: “We declined because it’s not open source.”[9] Therefore Linux was chosen.

Jim Gettys, responsible for the laptops' system software, has called for a re-education of programmers, saying that many applications use too much memory or even leak memory. "There seems to be a common fallacy among programmers that using memory is good: on current hardware it is often much faster to recompute values than to have to reference memory to get a precomputed value. A full cache miss can be hundreds of cycles, and hundreds of times the power consumption of an instruction that hits in the first level cache."[10]

On 4 August 2006, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that static copies of selected Wikipedia articles would be included on the laptops, Wales saying that "OLPC's mission goes hand in hand with our goal of distributing encyclopedic knowledge, free of charge, to every person in the world. Not everybody in the world has access to a broadband connection."[11] Negroponte had earlier suggested he would like to see Wikipedia on the laptop. Jimmy Wales, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, feels that Wikipedia is one of the "killer apps" for this device.[12]

A number of open-source textbooks need to be written in order for the laptop to achieve its educational goals. Alternately, mainstream publishers may release electronic copyrights to their books at a low enough cost that non-open source textbooks could be used.

The laptop is reportedly going to use the X Window System as the windowing system.

Thailand deployment

The software for the laptop’s deployment in Thailand, one of the first countries to participate in the program, tentatively includes Linux with the GNOME desktop, Abiword for a word processor, either Firefox or Epiphany for browsing the web, Gaim for instant messaging and Totem for the playback of audio and video.[13]

Criticism

Though generally well received at early stages, the project has been criticized as unrealistic.

At the UN conference in Tunisia, several African officials, most notably Marthe Dansokho of Cameroon and Mohammed Diop of Mali were suspicious of the motives of the project, and claimed that the project was using an overly American mindset that presented solutions not applicable to specifically African problems. Dansokho said the project demonstrated misplaced priorities, stating that clean water and schools were more important for African women, who he stated would not have time to use the computers to research new crops to grow, and Diop specifically attacked the project as an attempt to exploit the governments of poor nations by making them pay for hundreds of millions of machines.[14]

On December 9, 2005, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett criticised the project for being a "$100 gadget”: "... The problem is that gadgets have not been successful... It turns out what people are looking for is something that has the full functionality of a PC. Reprogrammable to run all the applications of a grown-up PC .... not dependent on servers in the sky to deliver content and capability to them, not dependent for hand cranks for power."[15] On March 15, 2006, after having introduced the Ultra Mobile PC, Bill Gates mocked the project, saying “If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection and have somebody there who can help support the user, geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type.”[16]

According to the OLPC wiki:

"It should be mentioned that a common criticism of the project is to say, "What poor people need is food and shelter, not laptops." This comment, however, is ignorant of conditions in impoverished nations around the world. While it is true there are many people in the world who definitely need food and shelter, there are multitudes of people who live in rural or sub-urban areas and have plenty to eat and reasonable accommodations. What these people don't have is a decent shot at a good education."

One criticism has been that the money of purchasing the laptops could be more favorably spent on libraries and schools. John Wood, founder of Room to Read, has emphasized what is affordable and can scale over high-tech solutions. While in favor of the One Laptop Per Child initiative for providing education to children in the developing world at a cheaper rate, he has pointed out that a $2000 library can serve 400 children, costing just $5 a child to bring access to a wide range of books in the local languages (such as Khmer or Nepali) and English; also a $10,000 school can serve 400-500 children ($20–$25 a child). According to Wood, these are more appropriate solutions for education in the dense forests of Vietnam or rural Cambodia.[17]

Another criticism is that developed countries are giving poorer children laptops before they give their own children laptops. It is claimed that many children in the United States and other developed countries would benefit much more from the use of a laptop than children in undeveloped countries. In fact, some states in the U.S. (e.g. Maine and Georgia) are providing commercial laptops to pupils [2] and the OLPC FAQ responds to the question: "Will the laptop be available for relatively developed nations?" by stating "We are exploring the possibility of developing a commercial version and we are in discussions with representatives from these nations about distribution of the non-commercial version. However, our priority is to make the laptop available first where there is the greatest need." The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is one of the initial participants in OLPC.

Others have pointed out that while the software is open source, the hardware is not. Several groups are attempting to create a truly open source processor architecture, open source video circuitry, et cetera. See Open source hardware. These projects are in the very early development stage though; the closest might be Open Graphics.

The project has also received criticism due to the environmental and health impacts of hazardous materials found in computers.[18] Many nations and organizations are working towards the development of “Green Electronics” (e.g. European Union with Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive).[19] While any project on this scale will have environmental impact, OLPC has asserted that it is aiming to use as environmentally friendly materials as they can; also that the laptop and all OLPC-supplied accessories will be fully RoHS compliant; and that the laptop will use an order of magnitude less power than the typical consumer laptops available today (as of 2006), reducing the environmental burden of power generation.[20].

Some people are criticizing the idea of not selling 2B1 on the open market. One concern is the possibility of arbitrage. If 2B1 is only made available in certain areas and to certain parties, a parallel black market for the laptops may develop. An arbitrageur could find a way to obtain the laptops for the going rate and resell them in the black market for a higher price. The presence of a black market could also encourage the intended owners to sell their laptops. Nicholas Negroponte addressed this concern during his presentation in the Emerging technologies Conference in September 2005:

The grey market is a very serious issue. I don't want to be dismissive of it for a moment, and there are three ways of addressing it. Way number one is to have no market at all for it. I mean you can't sell it, who could buy it, and that isn't bullet proof. That's a little bit dreaming, but it's part of the equation. The second is to put the technologies into the device that help stop that. [The laptops distributed to middle schoolers in Maine are Apple iBooks] so they are not only great stuff to steal and we don't necessarily have corruption of that kind, but it's pretty transferable technology. They've put little things so the machine disables itself after a while if it hasn't connected to the school. You can put GPS in it, you can put all sorts of stuff. But then the third one, which I'm doing and I like is to make this machine so distinctive that it is socially a stigma to be carrying one if you are not a child or a teacher. Now you can obviously take it down to your basement, but I hope your spouse will even say: "Oh God! Honey! What did you do?" OK? you stole from the church. It's like a red cross on something. So I'm hoping that the distinctiveness of the product will be the third one that maybe isn't thought of that often. So those three combined will I hope at least limit this to one percent or two percent. It's not going to be just going into it.[21]

A project functionally similar to 2B1, the OpenBook Project, aims to create and maintain open hardware and software specifications to enable production of convenient "tablet" in high volumes at a price "under $500." Unlike the OLPC initiative, the project is aimed at the open market.

The OLPC's efforts to deliver a comprehensive laptop-computer to the kids in developing countries faces challenges in the preparedness of the local infrastructure. At least skilled mentors will be needed locally to help the project establish in the area and teach both pupils and teachers how to benefit from the new hardware.

In today's digital world, Internet access is very important too. Except for relatively expensive satellite Internet access, there are few traditional Internet providers in the very rural areas of the developing countries. Other access methods, such as Wizzy Digital Courier, might be useful in the interim and can bring the price point very low. USB flash drives are carried back and forth, perhaps with truck or bus drivers, with UUCP as a base protocol to provide the last mile. Bandwidth remains high, at the cost of very long latency. The Children's Machine project will likely have to help build or grow the infrastructure if it wants to be successful.

Quotes

  • “Children will be able to learn by doing, not just through instruction—they will be able to open up new fronts for their education, particularly peer-to-peer learning.”Kofi Annan
  • “... if you take any world problem, any issue on the planet—the big ones, peace, the environment, poverty—the solution to that problem certainly includes education, could even be just education, and, if you have a solution that doesn’t include education it's not a solution at all.”Nicholas Negroponte
  • “One laptop per child: Children are your most precious resource, and they can do a lot of self-learning and peer-to-peer teaching. Bingo. End of story.”Nicholas Negroponte

See also

  • Simputer is an earlier project to construct cheap handheld computers in India
  • Longmeng or Dragon Dream is a Chinese low-cost computer being designed to cost €100
  • Wizzy Digital Courier: Internet access for rural schools via USB stick

References

  1. Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. ISBN 0-679-43919-6. 
  2. “U.N. Lends Backing to the $100 Laptop” Associated Press, January 26, 2006. Accessed January 27, 2006.
  3. "“We still need to put a large amount of research and development into this, and will then hopefully be ready to make a finished product in the second half of next year [2006]”, according to Quanta. Over the next six months, a team at Quanta Research Institute is going to be focusing on the $100 laptop. “Quanta cool on contract for $100 laptops” Financial Times, December 15, 2005. Accessed December 17, 2005.
  4. Donoghue, Andrew. $100 laptop 'will boost desktop Linux', CNET News.com, 2006-06-02. Retrieved on 2006-08-19.
  5. Stephen Shankland. Negroponte: Slimmer Linux needed for $100 laptop, CNET, 2006-04-04. Retrieved on 2006-08-11.
  6. One Laptop Per Child - a Preview of the Hundred Dollar Laptop, Worldchanging, November 3, 2005
  7. Fahrenthold, David A.. MIT Is Crafting Cheap -- But Invaluable -- Laptops, Washington Post, 2005-11-16, p. A03. Retrieved on 2006-08-18.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Interview with Jim Gettys, part II, LWN.net, July 6, 2006. Accessed August 14, 2006.
  9. “The $100 Laptop Moves Closer to Reality” Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2005. Accessed December 1, 2005.
  10. Interview: Jim Gettys (Part I), LWN.net, June 28, 2006. Accessed August 14, 2006.
  11. Business Wire (2006-08-04). One Laptop Per Child Includes Wikipedia on $100 Laptops; Subset of Online Encyclopedia to be Available in Static Version to Children and Teachers in Developing World. Press release. Retrieved on 2006-08-06.
  12. Fasimpaur, Karen (15 July 2008). Wikipedia – LongNow interview with Jimmy Wales. K12 Open Ed. Retrieved on 26 October 2013.
  13. http://wiki.laptop.org/wiki/Thailand_software_list
  14. “The $100 laptop — is it a wind-up?” CNN, December 1, 2005. Accessed December 1, 2005.
  15. “World's poorest don’t want ‘$100 laptop’: Intel” Reuters, December 9, 2005. Accessed February 2, 2006
  16. "Bill Gates Mocks $100 Laptop" Red Herring, March 16, 2006. Accessed May 23, 2006
  17. Software 2006 conference, Scaling Organizations Panel [1] (32:40)
  18. How Much E-Waste Per Child?, WorldChanging, December 19, 2005
  19. Era of Green Electronics, JimTrade, August 20, 2005
  20. OLPC Frequently Asked QuestionsQ, OLPC Wiki, accessed April 25, 2006
  21. Video of Negroponte speech, September 28, 2005 (RealVideo, 55:23).