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Emerging Technologies Conference 2005
By John Latta, WAVE 0542 10/21/05

Boston , MA
September 28 – 29, 2005

The event is done in conjunction with the Technology Review magazine on the MIT campus. It is focused on major issues in technology with particular emphasis on innovators, young and old. Topics are broad and include social computing, bio-nano frontiers, and nuclear power. Our attention will be on those that relate to computing. The badge scan indicated individuals from around the world. This is neither an academic conference nor a traditional trade show. It is one of the few we have attended which examines technology “from every angle” as the tag line indicates.

Is the Low Cost Notebook Real?

Nicholas Negroponte, Chairman, MIT Media Lab, presented details on the $100 lap top. The implications are deeper than just the price.

Mr. Negroponte is passionate about the education laptop. Here is a summary of what he said during his keynote.

This is the most important thing I have worked on in my life.

It is about education not a laptop.

In emerging nations, the issue is not about connectivity. There are many ways to solve this problem. Many people are working on this. It is happening.

For education it is the laptop itself that will change education and I have learned this in the projects we have done at the MIT Media Lab.

We have seen the power of bringing technology to education. The first was Costa Rica where now 50% of the exports are IC related and I believe this is related to our efforts to improve education. But this did not scale to adjacent countries. Another country we worked with on using computers in education was Senegal.

The idea for this project began in 1999, when my wife and I set up schools in two Cambodian villages – one so remote there are no roads to the village. The children were given laptops. When they first took the laptops home, the parents would not let them use them being afraid they would break. This was changed and we found that the parents loved it because the laptop screen was the brightest light in the house. In these villages they have only one room homes. Of the 50 laptops only one failed. All 50 of the AC adapters failed. There was great pride in the laptops and the children were very careful with them.

Maine has passed legislation which mandates OLPC (one laptop per child).

Last week, as part of an education reform plan, Massachusetts governor Romney proposed to spend $54 million to buy these laptops for every student. The first three grades would get computers during fiscal year 2007, while students in the other three grades would get them the following year. The computers would be gifts, so that students could keep them after graduating. I was with the Governor when this announcement was made.

The non-profit project is called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). It has significant implications on the ability to accomplish our ends. For example, 50% of the cost of a laptop has embedded in it the costs of sales and marketing – we have none. We can work with governments in emerging countries in ways that for-profit companies cannot.

Initial countries participating in the program are:

Thailand and
South Africa

We expect to ship 5 – 15m units to these countries.

To participate in this program, a county must purchase a minimum number of 1m units up front.

We are working with all the agencies of the UN which would have an interest in such a laptop but nothing is ready to be announced now.

These machines have the following characteristics:

Dual mode 7.5” display which is projected to cost $35.  One is a transflective color display and the other is a Bi-stable e-ink display so that it operates as a very low power e-book.

Our efforts on a 2nd Generation display based on e-ink technology which I have been showing to countries would cost 10¢ per sq. in. The target is $12 for a 12” color display with near Zero power consumption.

There are 4 USB ports which support transfer to and from the unit.

The CPU is 500MHz and runs from FLASH (1GB) and DRAM. There is no hard drive.

The power source can be any one of a battery power module, hand crank or AC. The carrying strap is also the AC power cord. When the transflective display is operating there is a 10:1 crank ratio – the use is 10X the crank time. When in e-book mode it is 100:1.

There are many modes which the notebook can be used:

Theater – to watch like a television
Writing tablet
Table Notebook

The design is very rugged. For example, the carrying handle is the power source.

Each laptop is a node on a mesh network which allows networking to be implemented in a village. All children are connected. We have found at 2MB will 1000 students very well.

The operating system is a light weight version of Linux. We feel that 75% of the of the overhead of a notebook is consumed by the “weight” of the OS.

I believe that the power of Wikipedia can help support the educational material needed for this effort. This another example of how open source will help this effort.

The corporate sponsors are:

News Corp
Red Hat

A prototype will be shown at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) on Nov. 17. The WSIS is due to be held in Tunis, Tunisia, from Nov. 16 to Nov. 18.

There was considerable discussion on the grey market for these machines. That is, will they be stolen or become a part of the corruption in many countries. It is hoped that the distinctive design and use will frustrate this but the issue will it only be determined in each country.

We expect to have:

2 Prototypes – Q1 2006
5 – 15 m units – Q4 2006
Year 2 – 100 – 150m

Given that there are 50m laptops sold today our volume will be 2X to 3X what is currently being sold

There may be a commercial unit sold in a parallel channel but it would likely cost $200.

Individuals involved in this project include:

Joe Jacobson (co-founder and director of E Ink)
Seymour Papert (one of the world's leading theorists on child learning),
Mike Bove,
Mary Lou Jepsen,
Alan Kay,
Tod Machover,
Mitchel Resnick, and
Ted Selker.

Although the price is targeted at $100, it is expected that the price will float with time because of the non-profit structure. It is hoped, with the low cost 2nd generation display, for example, that the price will continue to decline. Even at $100, the price is too high.

WAVE Comment

Much has been made of the $100 price point, and that misses the point. It really important is what this laptop will be able to do. In order to be successful, assuming that the price point is met and high volume manufacturing is accomplished, these factors need to fall in place:

The countries buying these laptops support them in the schools;

There will actually be a connectivity infrastructure;

There is content to support the educational objectives; and

Bureaucracies and corruption does not disable the program.

This is a tall order and has little to do with the actual machines.

Accomplishing production of >100m units in 24 months is a large expectation. In spite of being a non-profit, a commercial entity or many of them, must take on the responsibility for production and distribution. The team that Negroponte has described does not have this experience. That is, there might be an ecosystem around laptops but no ecosystem around low cost laptops for these struggling markets. In spite of the fact that the project is non-profit, someone, and likely many, will have to make profits in the ecosystem to accomplish the scale.

All of this aside, the gains from the end result can be huge. It will take passion to carry this project. Few can match Negroponte in passion. Certainly the team he has assembled has their hearts in making technology further education.

Cisco Plans Massive Improvements for Teleconferencing

Charles Giancarlo, Senior Vice-President and Chief Development Officer, Cisco, stated he shows up 20 minutes late for any meeting with video conferencing. He figures by that time it is either working or turned off. One of the problems is that the quality is so low and there is no visual connection between the individuals. Cisco is planning on a conferencing product which raises this bar significantly. Using HD and large screen displays, they want the meeting to be like being there. Rather than call it video conferencing, it will likely be called Telepresence. The product is expected in 2006.

Charles Giancarlo is also President of Linksys/Cisco. He expects that the video technology will also transition to the home. One of the major activities will also be the extension of VoIP technology into the home.

Due to the high performance of networks, we are at the threshold of virtualization of the computer. This includes  not only the disintermediation of the memory and disk drives but even to the OS. That is, the operating system will be made up of open independent parts in much the same way that the computer components are.

One of the most important developments of the evolution of computing is the move of computers that are horizontal to vertical – from computer rooms with computers in big boxes to blades. This process will continue.

The New Intel – a Solutions Company

Justin Rattner, Intel Senior Fellow, and Director of Intel’s Corporate Technology Group described the emergence of Intel 3.0. The first was a DRAM company, the second was microprocessors and the third a solution company. The turning point was Centrino technology. Justin’s comments:

The market value of going beyond just one component, the microprocessor, was a call to action in the company. This has given rise to many efforts including Intel’s ethnography and people and places activities. There is a huge worldwide opportunity for computing technology. When one considers that PC penetration in the US is approaching 78.5% and the rest of the world is only 4.4%, there is much to do to open new markets.

Our work in China has shown that there are specific needs unique to Chinese market and the role that parents play in a child’s education. As a result of our research, including observing in homes, we have released the China Learning PC called SuitMe.

The situation in India is quite different. There are 700m individuals in 600,000 villages. Here the kiosk model is prevalent. A PC is made available to a whole village by a operator who runs a kiosk. This individual is literate and can operate the computer for others. As a result Intel has created the Rurally-Hardened Platform – Community PC.

Motorola Concept: Seamless Mobility

Edward J. Zander, Chairman and CEO, Motorola showed a collection of new phones. At the same time he promoted the concept of Seamless Mobility. In his mind this is as significant at the minicomputers and Internet in their own times. This concept is founded on:

Movement to digital
Broadband wireless
Intelligence everywhere

The result of this is:

Any Device
Any Time
Any Where
Always on and
Network Agnostic

He was particularly strong on the Network Agnostic requirement. For example, there are many who feel 3G is better than WiMAX or 802.20 but this misses the point. Seamless Mobility should operate independent of the network:

Motorola has made a major commitment to WiMAX. We now have 400 engineers working on this technology.

The rate that the cell phone industry is expanding is amazing. Some statistics cited were:

There will be 800m cell phones sold in 2005, this is 6 to 7X the number of notebooks;

There are 320m wireless users in China alone.

Ring Tones represent 10% of all the music industry revenue.

It is estimated that by 2012 there will be 17b network to network devices connected.

A number of innovative phones were shown. But with the usual, sad commentary, that phone network innovation is not in the US but Europe and Asia.

Kurzweil’s World is Becoming Flat

Ray Kurzweil, Chairman and CEO, Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. gave a shotgun 30 minute presentation on Innovation Everywhere—How the Acceleration of “GNR” (genetics, nanotechnology, robotics) Will Create a Flat and Equitable World. If this can be captured in one sound bite it is that all technology is plotted on a log log graph.

It is Ray’s view that it is impossible to accurately gauge technology as it happens but only over time. His analysis led to some striking predictions as humans on biologic scale integrate with technology.

By 2010 Computers will Disappear

Images will be written directly on our retinas

Ubiquitous high bandwidth connection to the internet at all times

Electronics so tiny it’s embedded in our environment, our clothing and our eyeglasses

By 2029 there will be an intimate merger

$1,000 of computation – 1,000X the human brain

Reverse engineering of the human brain is completed

Computers pass the Turing test

Nonbiological intelligence will continue to grow exponentially whereas biological intelligence is fixed.

Constant Theme – Decline of the US in Engineering and Sciences

If there was one message which was pandemic in virtually all the sessions is the decline in US engineering and science education. With only 60,000 graduates in the US a year and 260,000+ in China alone, the situation was seen as declining. Funding for engineering has remained flat for more than 20 years.

One of the concerns is that engineering is no longer exciting. There is noting like Sputnik to fuel the competitive spirit.

When asked why are other countries ahead of the US most felt this issue was not innovation in process. In the 80’s and 90’s individuals from China and other countries toured many companies here in Silicon Valley and Boston, for example. They took notes and now the results of their carefully study are bearing fruit. It was cited that many countries have cabinet level posts in technology and the US does not. There are national goals in technology and there are none in the US.

One of the reasons for concern is that there is a close tie between GDP growth and technology innovation which is related to an educated workforce.

The alarm bells have been rung but it is unclear if the US has the leadership and will to regain its leadership position.

WAVE Comments

In looking at the big picture, Ray Kurzweil constructed a compelling picture of the evolution of technology and how progress is unrelenting. But, there is an even more important observation to draw – relentless change makes technologies and organizations which are dependent on them obsolete at the same pace. The Internet bubble of 2000 – 2002 is the digital Mesozoic Era which killed the dinosaurs of a pre-historic digital time. History has shown that evolution periodically cleanses the environment of species and obsolete life forms (e.g. technologies and companies).

If there was a constant over the two days of the Emerging Technologies Conference it was instability. The water of innovation sought its own level in disruption. Ultimately disruption impacts companies. Edward J. Zander, Chairman and CEO, Motorola stated: The time to make radical business changes is when the business is at its peak not when it is under assault.

One of the saddest parts directly relates to the US. Our leadership in technology is being disrupted. The WAVE sees this on a continuous basis in wireless. The Klaxons went off at the Emerging Technologies Conference in education – the life blood of sustaining innovation. Overcoming these issues takes leadership and there no signs of this emerging anytime soon.

Technology progress, in isolation, was less important than creating paradigm shifts. It was interesting that Intel and Nicholas Negroponte agreed on the importance of bringing computing to emerging countries but the solution was radically different. Intel was about fine tuning its normal ways of doing business. The MIT Media Lab was about going into the business of making laptops at very low prices. Another very different example was that Motorola was not concerned about which 3G technology wins but how it can be network agnostic to implement seamless mobility.

One tidbit, which could ultimately be the largest force for effectiveness in emerging countries, was the presence of Google on the MIT team. It may ultimately be that the use of open source on the OLPC (one laptop per child) is much less important than the rethinking of how educational material can be delivered – this is what Google can bring.

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