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Ethiopian Kids Hack OLPC Tablets - Shades of Diamond Age
Review by Ernest Lilley
DVICE / SYFY  ISBN/ITEM#: olpcethiopiahac
Date: 01 November 2012

Links: Full DVICE article / MIT TR: Given Tablets but No Teachers... /

The One Laptop Per Child folks, who are now really the one tablet per child folks, left a thousand tablets in sealed boxes without instructions in a the middle of an Ethiopian village where the children had arguably never seen a printed word. Just to see what would happen. And what happened was that they took to them like ducks to water, or hackers to code...which explains how they enabled the cameras that had been disabled before sealing the tablets up.

But I love most of all that the teaching software on it is named Nell, after Neal Stephenson's character in the Diamond Age, a Chinese girl who accidentally comes into possession of an AI powered learning tablet. SF does not predict the future for the most part, but occasionally it offers it a template to build it on.

Here's an excerpt blatantly lifted from SyFy's DIVCE website:

"Rather than give out laptops (they're actually Motorola Zoom tablets plus solar chargers running custom software) to kids in schools with teachers, the OLPC Project decided to try something completely different: it delivered some boxes of tablets to two villages in Ethiopia, taped shut, with no instructions whatsoever. Just like, "hey kids, here's this box, you can open it if you want, see ya!"

Just to give you a sense of what these villages in Ethiopia are like, the kids (and most of the adults) there have never seen a word. No books, no newspapers, no street signs, no labels on packaged foods or goods. Nothing. And these villages aren't unique in that respect; there are many of them in Africa where the literacy rate is close to zero. So you might think that if you're going to give out fancy tablet computers, it would be helpful to have someone along to show these people how to use them, right?

But that's not what OLPC did. They just left the boxes there, sealed up, containing one tablet for every kid in each of the villages (nearly a thousand tablets in total), pre-loaded with a custom English-language operating system and SD cards with tracking software on them to record how the tablets were used. Here's how it went down, as related by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference last week:

"We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He'd never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android."

Tablet test: Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child, describes experiments involving children in Ethiopia at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference.(source: MIT's Technology Review Online

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