People-powered PCs hold huge promise for bridging the digital divide in many developing countries

More than one billion people around the world live without electricity. That means bridging the digital divide requires computing without power — electrical power, that is. New technology promises power with the strength of your biceps or the power of your legs. Hand-cranked laptops and bicycle-powered VoIP phones sound like flights of fancy, but they’re now a reality. And the inventors are looking for governments and relief organizations to buy into these concepts.Not only will human-powered technology benefit people living without electricity or telecommunications infrastructure, it could open up new possibilities for contingency planning and disaster relief. Think of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the earthquake in northern Pakistan, where simple tools could have kept people connected to the outside world.
One invention that will benefit cash-strapped schools around the world is the US$100 laptop. Researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing the laptop, dubbed the “green machine” for its lime green colour, which will be sold exclusively to schools through government initiatives. But it’s not just the low price that makes these laptops so interesting. Students without electricity at school or home can actually wind up their laptop with a hand crank — one minute of winding for 10 minutes of computing power.
MIT’s co-founder Nicholas Negroponte showcased a prototype green machine at the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society in November, which was aimed at finding ways to narrow the information gap between rich and poor. Negroponte, who runs the non-profit One Laptop Per Child, believes this project has the potential to transform the lives of millions of children in the developing world through self-learning and peer-to-peer teaching.
MIT plans to start producing the laptops within a year. So far, Brazil’s president has agreed to buy one million laptops. Chile, Argentina and Thailand are also interested, as are schools in the U.S.
The machine will also use open-source software to allow for the development of local content in local languages. As an added bonus, each laptop will be equipped with Wi-Fi to form a “mesh” network, which is essentially an ad-hoc network where laptops act as access points for other laptops. This could substantially broaden coverage if hundreds or thousands of students are all using their laptops at the same time.
Another invention that will benefit those without power, either in developing nations or for disaster relief, is the solar- and bicycle-powered VoIP phone. Developed by Inveneo, a voice-over-IP company with plans to deliver communications access to people in developing nations, the VoIPcycle would provide the rider with one hour of service on a wireless VoIP phone for every 15 minutes of riding.
While it’s hard to imagine most North Americans puffing away on a bicycle just to be able to talk on the phone, in many countries bicycles are still a primary means of transportation. The VoIPcycle could provide communications to people living in rural areas without telecommunications infrastructure or where phone service is simply too expensive for the average person.
How does it work? The VoIPcycle is connected to a battery, which powers a Linux box connected to the VoIP system. In addition to communications, the VoIP system provides e-mail and Web browsing using a combination of Linux and the Asterisk open source PBX. Wi-Fi networking routes traffic to a central hub, which provides telephone and Internet service. Additionally, the system is designed to withstand extreme heat. Inveneo is currently working with international relief organizations to bring the bicycle to remote African villages, where the weather plays a factor in the design of the technology.
Now, if only someone would come up with a hand-cranked car…

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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