Last week I went to Cambridge to meet a group of engineers and computer scientists who are working with US$30 Raspberry Pi computers. Few of them were undergraduate students, very young yet impressively competent and passionate about their work.
I left the campus with a mixed feeling of enthusiasm and embarrassment, recalling my early twenties when I was still merrily wasting my time with a degree in Communication, while these boy-geniuses are developing solutions to save the world.
Of course, a place like Cambridge is ideal for great minds to thrive. They have funds, infrastructures and the best of the world’s research in many fields. I have been in Oxford as well but I liked Cambridge better, I found a more friendly and open-minded community. And they were building robots.
Needless to say, they won my heart.
Before visiting the lab, I had the opportunity to discuss with one of my interviewees the issues of education and open source, currently crucial within the IT community. The Raspberry Pi’s concept is interesting not because of its technology, which is really simple, but because it’s been designed to encourage people to take part and learn how to build computers and write softwares.
In the age of the internet our life is becoming more and more dependent on information technology, yet very few people are familiar with it. For example, not having a clue of what happens behind my screen when I work with a particular software or I look for information online makes me feel uncomfortable.
It’s true that we don’t need to know how everything works in our everyday life to use it properly and safely. For example, not all car drivers are mechanics. But a car is based on a stable technology that doesn’t require any major adaptation from the user. I can manage my granpa’s old banger or the last BMW with the same driving competences.
Things are different when it comes to computers. The internet is a dynamic environment and the technology underpinning it is in constant change. Of course computer science is not all about the web, but I dare to say that the way humans are now able to interact with machines is probably the major breakthrough in the whole history of information technology.
However, according to researchers a further step is needed. At the moment people know how to use internet and computers, but they don’t know how to build machines in order to perform original tasks.
The world is facing unprecedented challenges and innovation is more important than ever. Bringing people into computer science and engineering is crucial to develop solutions to new problems.
Knowing how to use a CMS or a search engine is not enough. These are tools designed for responding to relatively limited needs such as blogging or searching in the web. Only by creating adequate tools to perform brand new tasks we will get ready to respond to the needs of a changing world.
Open source technology and cheap computers like Arduino or Rasberry Pi are designed for this purpose. Enabling more people to participate in the improvement of technology is not only an act of democracy. It will also bring better results.