Category Archives: Technology

The OLPC (should be) Dead, Long Live the Aakash

Engadget and a number of other technology blogs are rife with coverage of the imminent launch of the OLPC XO 3 tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) starting today. Unfortunately, this attention to this third iteration of the 100-dollar-computer-that-never-was could not be more misdirected and misses the real story – that technology has moved on from the OLPC and will evolve even faster in the future.

Over at the WSJ’s Speakeasy blog is a story much more relevant to technology for the masses – about the Aakash Ubislate 7+. This 7-inch table runs Android, has support for 2.5G GPRS and wifi (the OLPC did not have both), is currently shipping, and one month after launch has pre-orders for over 2 million units – essentially more than the OLPC has delivered in its either 6+ year lifetime.

This obsession with a project that failed long ago is unhealthy for a number of reasons.

First, it encourages the disc0nnect between the real world and the development community – represented by the OLPC organization and those that comment on it. Much of this community believes it knows best how to help the poor and what technology developing countries deserve. Meanwhile, the poor (or the aspiring middle class in this case), are busy helping themselves to technology that is good enough.

Second, (and this doesn’t happen often), it vindicates a decision taken by the Indian government years ago to refuse rolling out the OLPC in India. Back then critics claimed India was reinforcing the digital divide amongst its citizens. In hindsight, it seems, the Indian government may have saved the taxpayer billions and seems to have had a better grasp of how to incentivize the private sector to deliver a more functional product for less. This is a useful lessons to governments – if they must support such initiatives it is not by subsidizing purchases but by ensuring a large enough market exists for the private sector to do what it does best.

Finally, and perhaps most important, it allows Mr. Negroponte to hog more money and media attention. The founder of the OLPC has a long history of failing to achieve his own constantly downsized objectives. The OLPC  has  captured the attention of millions of do-gooders in its lifetime and has helped raise the profile of many. But even if it now reaches the USD 100 target, lower priced alternatives already exist.

In any darwinian system, a project that failed so completely and spectacularly would have been shuttered long ago. So it is a sad commentary on the non-profit sector that the OLPC plods along. It is time this relic too went the way of the dinosaur.

OLPC Lesson Part 2: Don’t Take Negroponte Seriously

Continuing on the theme of the last post, here is another lesson from the OLPC XO-1. Don’t believe anything that Nicholas Negroponte says. If you had doubts, look at the latest concept to come out of OLPC – the XO-3.

Forbes is all praise for this new design: “Take a look at the designs for what could someday be the world’s cheapest PC, and you may start to wish you were a third-grade child in Burundi.” This magical device is thinner than an iPhone, all-plastic, touchscreen, durable, and backlit. And all that for an amazing USD 75.

Forbes may be fooled, but the somewhat more tech-savvy folks at CNET remind us to take everything coming out of the OLPC Foundation with several grains of salt:

Remember, this is the organization that didn’t just scrap the XO-2, but couldn’t even tack a touch screen onto the current XO-1 laptop, which isn’t anywhere near the $100 that Negroponte once dreamed of.

Wired calls it “vaporvare”, pointing out that “CG mockups and philanthropic promises aren’t the same as real, shipping hardware.” Then again, perhaps it doesn’t have to be. As Mr. Negroponte himself says, “We don’t necessarily need to build it. We just need to threaten to build it.”

That must be code for, “You should know I cannot do this, and if you don’t then the joke is on you.” Or perhaps Mr. Negroponte believes he is the design center for the developing world’s computers. But at a sticker price of several billion dollars, that is a very expensive center indeed. He could get away with it once, but the real question is will media continue to pander to Mr. Negroponte’s self-gratifying dreams?

Finally, if there is any doubt left in your mind that the OLPC is a good idea, here’s another hint. Mr. Negroponte concludes by saying, “Sure, if I were a commercial entity coming to you for investment, and I’d made the projections I had in the past, you wouldn’t invest again, but we’re not a commercial operation. If we only achieve half of what we’re setting out to do, it could have very big consequences.”

To paraphrase: “I cannot do what I promise and at the price I promise. But that doesn’t matter, because we are not a commercial operation. And you being a government could not possibly be bothered by such things as expenses, forecasting, and budgets. Just throw your money my way.”

Any OLPC believers still out there, please cling to your faith.

What Have we Learnt from OLPC?

This article has been cross-posted from the Educational Technology Debate.

Wayan Vota started an Educational Technology Debate on what the OLPC has achieved thus far with the assertion that the OLPC is “changing education, technology, even culture in ways beyond any one person’s understanding.”

Going by some of the comments that follow one could be excused for thinking that the OLPC is the best thing to happen to the world since sliced bread. The XO laptop will magically transform students into self-learners (“peers working collaboratively in teams”). A more balanced followup by Scott Kipp still proposes that thanks to the OLPC, “evaluations, discussions and policy assessments about whether or not to have computers in the classroom will very soon be entirely obsolete, if not already.”

Such overwhelming enthusiasm is surely out of place, and perhaps a bit of perspective is important.

For one lets be realistic that the OLPC is not “revolutionalizing” education. Yes, OLPC will soon have 1 million XO laptops in circulation. But compare that with 121 million children not in school, 668 million children that started primary school in 2007, or the 774 million illiterate adults and the OLPC does not seem that revolutionary. No doubt, computers will be important in the future to deliver education, but a lot of schools still struggle with having a blackboard or even a building. So lets not overstate either the scale or the impact of the OLPC.

Second, it is a stretch to say, as Wayan does, that the XO spawned the netbook. What the XO did do was spawn the Classmate PC. But the next step is a bit of a stretch.

Even if the XO did spawn the netbook, the lesson from this is two-fold. First, that non-profit initiatives such as the OLPC are particularly well-suited to creating new innovations, particularly for under-served populations.

Conversely, and this is the second lesson, the dissemination of commercially viable innovations is best left to the private sector. The XO laptop still costs upward of the original USD 100 target price. Meanwhile, the Amazon Kindle costs USD 259, the cheapest netbook now costs USD 98, and in developed countries netbooks are available for free with Internet/data plans. So the second lesson is that if you want cheap computers, don’t let a single institution – particularly a non-profit – build it as a monopoly.

A third lesson, to paraphrase Scott, is that teachers are part of the solution – not the problem. This is not wording that OLPC proponents would like because constructionsm sees teachers as a corrupting influence. Too much of the broader debate around the quality of education in developing countries also lays blame on teachers – without exploring the context in which they operate. Yet, is there an OLPC project that has substituted teachers with laptops? So, the second lesson is that if you want to achieve education for all, spend more on teachers and on computers. And if you must choose between the two, spend on the former.

Finally, it has also taught us that policymakers don’t always make the most judicious use of taxpayer money. The approximately USD 150 million spent on XO laptops, for instance, is the same annual amount needed to achieve 100% literacy in Brazil. Yes, the OLPC has certain other benefits, such as evaluating the impact, benefits and drawbacks of computers in the classroom. But at a potential price-tag of USD 66.8 billion for all the world’s primary school children, it would be a very expensive experiment indeed.

Swine Flu Exposes Limits of Google Trends

Update: See this new NYTimes story that talks about where Google Flu Trends works and how. It validates the problem of “noise,” while providing new information on how the Flu Trends algorithm works.

Swine flu is in. In the rush to cover this latest possible pandemic, newswires are alive with activity, blogs and social networking sites are buzzing, and the CDC and WHO are back in the limelight. This despite the fact that the number of cases are limited (only 40 confirmed infections have occurred in the US).

The rush of news has been accompanied by a rush to track that news. The WSJ, amongst others, has a tracking website, including a map of infections in North America. Best of all, Google has a map showing how the infection is traveling.

This rush was started by Google Flu Trends, a website that tracks flu-related search queries to estimate influenza levels in different US states. Further studies suggested the same approach might work for other diseases as well.

Analyzing Google Trends

So how has Google Trends, the broader application of the Flu Trends concept, performed in the current scenario? A quick analysis shows that Google search results did in fact increase over the past few days (see chart – source: Google Trends).

Google Trends for swine flu (April 26, 2009)

A quick analysis shows three items worth mentioning:

  • First, while Google Trends does show an increase in search activity on “swine flu,” the first uptick in activity only occurred on April 23. By contrast, the first news stories appeared on April 21 when two cases were confirmed in California.
  • Second, Google Trends reports that the majority of search queries were from New Zealand, USA, UK, Canada, and Australia. Only a very small minority were from Mexico. Yet, Mexico is the country supposedly at the heart of the pandemic.

Explaining the Discrepencies

I had used a Google Trends like methodology two years ago to track the evolution of climate change as an issue in news coverage. Having worked on that, I can propose a few general reasons that explain why Google Trends is limited in this case.

First, it appears that Google Trends follows with some time lag, actual infections. This should not be surprising, as people are not likely to search for a disease before having had some exposure to it. This does not mean that it is not a useful tool for tracking diseases over the long term. At the very least, the response time of a system based on GT might be lower.

Second, the current scenario shows that Google Trends is highly susceptible to “noise.” Prior to this outbreak, swine flu was probably not a commonly known disease, and queries on it were extremely rare (if not non-existent). Thus, even the slightest uptick in search activity would show up as a major change. That uptick was provided by the highly charged media coverage of the subject. Given this, one wonders if the search results are more “noise” and less people with a genuine interest in the subject. So, Google Trends is likely to be more accurate where general knowledge of a subject (the baseline) is high, and media coverage (noise) is low.

Finally, and most interestingly, why is it that most of the search results came from the US, while Mexico is more exposed to it? Not surprisingly, this methodology only works where both a large number of the population and media are on the internet.

What Next for Google Trends?

When discussing why most search queries occurred in the US, it is worth noting another fact about the swine flu outbreak – that it has traveled extremely fast. Originating in Mexico, it has been carried to the USA, Spain, and New Zealand. This brings into question the validity of using the geographic source of search queries as a reliable indicator of where the disease actually is.

Still, it may also offer a way to enhance Google Trends. What if Google Trends data was combined with travel data on the number of people traveling from a “hotspot” of an infectious disease. It would be logical to assume that popular destinations, or ones which receive travel groups, would be the most likely next locations for further infections. Thus, a map could potentially be created of not only where the disease is generating interest, but where it might be headed.

Of course, Google does not have access to such data – though at some point it may decide to acquire a travel operator. But the general lesson is simply that to make Google Trends more useful, search query data needs to be looked at together with real-world data (such as travel data or hospital records).

It is still early days for the swine flu outbreak, but some commentators are already suggesting the “social web” has actually created hysteria rather than help track the disease. That may be true, but it is hardly a problem of the “social web.” As a reader on the FP pointed out, “Twitter is only a natural extension of a typical neighborhood.”

So, in this “typical neighborhood,” what the swine flu outbreak has done is illustrate where Google Trends does well – in tracking general interest amongst heavy Internet users. But it also exposes limitations – the methodology is (not surprisingly) susceptibility to “noise” from media coverage and is biased towards countries and issues that are online. This does not mean that the idea itself is flawed. Just that it must be taken with a pinch of salt, and that it needs work – especially interfacing it with real-world data streams – to make it really useful.

Which Risk Takers and Which Big Bets?

Thomas Friedman, the much celebrated author of The World is Flat and a well-regarded columnist at the NYTimes, has the solution to our economic woes and the climate crises.

Writing in February for the NYT he suggested that the taxpayer call the “top 20 venture capital firms in America” and give them USD 1 billion each for “creating jobs.” That would be a much better use of the money than investing it in failed firms such as GM or Chrysler.

Mr. Friedman is right that startups are risk takers and that GM and Chrysler might create more value by going bust. But VCs themselves were quick to pooh-pooh his suggestion, indicating that they do not need more money and besides, “Nothing kills a great idea like too much cash. Unless it’s a flood of too much taxpayer cash, because then we all lose.”

In a more recent column for the NYT, however, Mr. Friedman has gone further to suggest not only that the government needs to fund innovation, but that it also should decide how it should be funded:

But here’s what I do know: President Obama’s stimulus package has given a terrific boost to renewable energy. It will pay lasting benefits. And we need to keep working on all forms of solar, geothermal and wind power. They work. And the more they get deployed, the more their costs will go down.

But, in addition, we need to make a few big bets on potential game-changers. I am talking about systems that could give us abundant, clean, reliable electrons and drive massive innovation in big lasers, materials science, nuclear physics and chemistry that would benefit, energize and renew many U.S. industries.

There are several problems with what is an extension of the original “lets fund VCs” argument.

First, it is disingenous to say that “without some game-changers, climate change is going to have its way with us.” That’s because climate change is going to have its way with us anyway. There is no technology, current or in development, that can take away existing atmospheric CO2 or arrest and reverse temperature increases.

Second, while it is true that an innovative society depends both on incremental and disruptive advances in science and technology, it is ridiculous to suggest that the allocation of resources to those specific research efforts is wanting. Why, after all, should nuclear fusion (the example used by Friedman) be favored over nanotechnology – which might help help us adapt to climate change – or agricultural research?

The basic argument in both articles is circular – it presumes that resource allocation towards R&D is broken and thus must be fixed. But neither is that resource allocation fundamentally broken, nor is the proposed solution any better than the alternative of doing nothing. Mr. Friedman has the luxury of being provocative without working through the details of his ideas. Yet, for the rest of us the devil does lie in the details.

Why A $10 Laptop is Possible

The announcement of tha $10 laptop backed by the Indian government has led to both excitement and consternation. The Guardian calls it the “credit crunch” computer. But Atanu Dey, writing on his blog, trashes the idea: “I think it is a safe bet that the government officials who continue to make their $10 claims are clueless about technology and about the complexity of building a complex machine.”

But the people behind the laptop have “pedigree” – the backing of the Indian Institute of Science, and Indian Institute of Technology. Of course, nobody has seen the thing even after the laptop was announced today at the launch of the National Mission on Education, but it is expected to have 2GB of RAM and wireless connectivity. Its hard to see how a fully functional laptop could meet that price point. But here’s why Atanu Dey could be wrong.

First, all those arguing that it is not possible to build a laptop at that price are missing the point. Nobody said this would be a fully functional laptop. It does not need an Intel CPU or a Windows Operating System. As this blog points out, the laptop plan “challenges our thinking on system design.” Significant cost savings are possible simply through appropriate design.

There is an important message here. When we are addressing the developing-world market, we cannot afford to make the assumptions that we in the US don’t even recognize as assumptions any more.

Next, who said anything about a display? Much has been made of the fact that a typical LCD display costs at least $28. Clearly then, such a laptop must be vaporvare. Except, if you do away with the display. Most people presume a display is necessary, yet most of the functionality of a laptop can be provided by time-sharing a fixed display with multiple users.

And finally, the $10 value is a price point – not a cost point. It has been suggested that the laptop is probably being subsidized by the government. But the government doesn’t need to subsidize this when companies would be lining up to pay to be on this platform. Imagine a computer in the hands of 100 million Indians. Which corporation would pass up the opportunity to be on it? Commentators suggest that Microsoft’s Windows would probably be missing from this device, given it would increase cost. I think Microsoft would pay to be on this device, for fear of missing the boat.

Its clear that it is hard to build at $10 laptop that matches what most netbooks today offer, at cost. However, it is entirely possible to sell a computer at that price, that offers basic computing with a few tradeoffs and caveats.

No doubt, when Ratan Tata announced the 1-lakh car, people said it was not technically possible. But in building the Nano, Tata demonstrated that what we can build is limited not by technology but by our imagination and the assumptions that frame our world. This laptop may well be too ambitious or prove to be more expensive than announced. But critics should think far outside the boundaries of their frame of reference, before concluding it isn’t possible.

The Asian Space Race: Where India Wins

India has successfully launched its first true space mission (covered everywhere – NYTimes, Guardian) with the launch of the Chandrayaan-1 unmanned spacecraft. The mission, which will take two years, is expected to orbit the moon at 100km, build a high resolution map, explore the moon’s surface through an impact probe, and search for traces of water and rare elements (such as Helium 3).

Not surprisingly, coverage of this event is extensive (take a quick look at Google News search), and the foreign press is picking this up as far as Taiwan, Malaysia, Canada, and Australia. Australia’s newspapers said that the launch indicated India’s rise to great power status. In my opinion, however, the broad coverage India’s technical success receives is a better barometer of how important India has become. Clearly, a lot of countries are watching India.

A Space Race…with Significant Differences

Of course, no mention of India’s space ambitions would be complete without comparisons with China’s. For instance, TIME had the following to say:

Asia’s space race just got a whole lot tighter: India’s successful launch on Wednesday of its first moon mission, the unmanned Chandrayaan-I, marked a dramatic step forward in its race with China to put a man on the moon. China had stolen a march in 2003 by becoming only the third nation to fly a man into space (after the U.S. and the old Soviet Union), but when, ten days from now, Chandrayaan-I drops a probe bearing India’s flag onto the moon, India will become only the fourth country to plant its colors on the lunar landscape — after the Americans, the Russians, and Japan.

Yet, there are critical differences in and benefits to India’s approach.

First, it is substantially cheaper than any existing or forthcoming mission: Chandrayaan-1 cost about USD 79 million, while the upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from NASA is expected to cost USD 500 million. This emphasis on cost efficiency is a legacy of India’s resource constrained innovation environment, and has been a hallmark of most technical projects. It also gives India a long-term competitive advantage over other nations:

Earlier this year India was ranked by analysts at Futron, a hi-tech consultancy, as only a fraction behind China in global space competitiveness rankings, and well ahead of Japan, Israel and Canada. It is also building a low-cost, hi-tech base. China’s Chang’e I cost nearly double India’s Chandrayaan I bill of $86m.

Second, despite being cheaper, the lunar probe is more technologically advanced than the Chinese and Japanese probes. For the first time, this will allow high-resolution mapping of the moon’s atmosphere and surface.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, India’s mission is not a lonely one. Chandrayaan-1 carries two instruments from NASA and one from the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory in the UK. And India’s next objective – for a larger spacecraft and moon lander – will require collaboration with Russia:

The Indian agency’s next step is to launch a second unmanned lunar mission in 2011, comprising an orbiting spacecraft, a lander and a moon-rover built with Russian help.

Chandrayaan Reflects Politics

Chandrayaan’s rise is a reflection of the geopolitical shift that has taken place in the Western world, towards India. Kissinger once said that “Indians are bastards.” Today, the USA has revoked global non-proliferation rules for India and is paying India to carry its high-tech gagdets into space. This is a sharp rebuke to those that suggested the Indo-US nuclear deal would curtail India’s technological advances, for it illustrates collaboration between India and the world’s current major powers can only benefit us.

Second, it illustrates that India – despite its millions of poor people – has no intention of being left out of the space race, and rightly so. There are many ways to develop a country and address poverty. Investments in innovation, technology, and science are certainly some of the best. Not surprisingly, some prefer that India spend its money to feed the hungry, but they benefit immensely from ISRO’s weather mapping satellites and networks. Dr Kasturirangan, ISRO’s chairperson said it better:

“It is not a question of whether we can afford it. It’s whether we can afford to ignore it…the returns, in terms of the science…the technology, inspiration, stature, prospects for international cooperation… are immense.” For one, it will help India cement its position in the commercial satellite launch sector, and it will give the ISRO valuable experience in building hi-tech spacecraft, improved rocketry and more advanced remote navigation technology — all of which could be put to many uses.

Finally, this mission should give pause to those that question India’s capablities, vis-a-vis China. China may have moved first, but India is not far behind. This mission is cheaper and promises to be more effective. Besides, the words of Bharat Karnad, ironically someone opposed to the nuclear deal and to this mission, are relevant here:

That India is not about to become a “global superpower” in a hurry, is true. But is that reason enough to deny this country the building block capabilities of great power?

In other words, simply because China is ahead of India is no reason not to compete.

There is little doubt that a new “space race” is on. It is also inevitable that this will lead to greater competition in the future. For instance, India and China are both seeking Helium 3 on the moon to source their energy needs. This is just one example of likely competition for limited resources on this “final frontier.” The outcome of this race is far from clear, but India’s approach of avoiding excess and seeking collaboration is better. It bodes well not just for India’s space program, but for the prospects of collaborating to share the spoils.

Critical Views on the OLPC: Testing the Learning Hypothesis

Nicholas Negroponte likes to point out that the OLPC project is “about learning, not about laptops.” So the Harvard International Review and OLPC News take a close look at that value proposition. It is a point worth pondering, for the OLPC is drawing serious money, most famously with Libya committing USD 250 million for 1.2 million computers.

Continue reading Critical Views on the OLPC: Testing the Learning Hypothesis