Hand-cranked computers: Is this a wind-up?

Hand-cranked computers cheap enough for every child in the world? It sounds ideal, but not everyone is happy. Jimmy Lee Shreeve reports

Dubbed the "green machine", MIT's crank-handle-powered laptop is being hailed as an invention that will revolutionise education in the developing world. And when you're unveiling such a piece of technology, you clearly don't want any mishaps.

But, fortunately, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was able to hide his embarrassment when he accidentally snapped the crank-handle off the prototype, lime green-coloured laptop he was helping to showcase at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis last Thursday.

He had little cause to worry, though: the laptop, which he described as an "expression of global solidarity", was actually a non-functioning model of a design dreamed up by Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. As Negroponte told the Summit, his aim is to put an internet- and wi-fi-enabled laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world by 2010.

The proposed laptop, which was announced in January this year, will be powered by a wind-up mechanism (for areas where no electricity is available) and will have very low power consumption. According to Negroponte, access to IT will make all the difference to education in the developing world. "Studies have shown that kids take up computers much more easily [than adults] in the comfort of warm, well-lit, rich-country living rooms, but also in the slums and remote areas all around the developing world," he said.

The technology visionary - who founded Wired magazine - has set up a not-for-profit organisation called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to sell the laptops for $100 to the governments of developing nations. The idea is that the governments will then distribute the machines for free.

Children will have a choice as to how to use the green machine - as a conventional computer or as an electronic book. The device will have an 8in screen, and it will be possible to hold it much as you would a hand-held games console. It will also function as a TV. "The idea is that it fulfils many roles. It is the whole theory that learning is seamless," said Negroponte.

To save money, green machines will run off the open source Linux operating system, which is free, instead of a proprietary system such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X. The machines will have a modest 500MHz processor (slow by today's standards, but not much of a problem when running Linux OS), and will be fitted with 1GB of flash memory rather than a hard drive, which is more delicate due to its moving parts. The laptops will be full-colour, capable of wireless connection to the internet, and encased in rubber. Even the machines' AC adaptors double as carrying straps.

Five corporate sponsors, including Google and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), have chipped in $2m (£1.2m) apiece to the project. Negroponte has specified that each country orders a million units minimum, in order to keep costs down, and half a dozen developing countries have already expressed serious interest. Also, the United Nations Development Programme has agreed to help with the distribution of the machines to countries whose orders fall below the million-unit bar.

Expectations are high, with mass distribution expected late next year or early in 2007. But some are sceptical. After all, what was on display at the World Summit on the Information Society earlier this month was only a mock-up.

The inventor Trevor Baylis, who created the clockwork radio, has doubts. After being invited to MIT Media Lab to view the prototype, he commented: "It could have been put together with a Lego kit. Nothing worked. I was expecting him to show me the screen in action or the wind-up feature, but I saw nothing but a basic prototype."

Another worry is what will happen to the laptops after they've been handed out free. The average Nigerian, for example, makes less than £600 a year, so a family would have a strong incentive to sell the laptop. Negroponte, however, says that you simply need to find a way to remove the secondary market: "One solution would be to make sure the machine will be disabled if it doesn't log in to the network for a few days," he suggests.

There is even some doubt as to whether Negroponte will be able to keep the price down to $100. He himself admits that negotiations with governments have been "very hard", and that price quotes to build the laptops remain closer to $110 than $100.

But even Baylis says: "If Negroponte has done it, full marks to the guy." And, as history has shown, people with vision usually find a way to make their ideas reality.

For more information, see laptop.media.mit.edu/

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?