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Designing a better world

Posted: 01 Jun 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ultralow-cost pc? ict4b? information and communication technology? third world? nanotechnology?

Engineering at its best is about solving problems, not just cramming more megabytes onto a bus. And one place that's crying out for solutions is the Third World. Can the problems there be met by interesting engineering solutions that lead to sustainable businesses?

Increasingly, corporations and academics are saying yes. February brought news of ultralow-cost PCs in the works from the likes of AMD, HP and Via Technologies. The idea is to wire up the developing world with low-cost computers.

More recently, Inktomi founder Eric Brewer discussed the Information and Communication Technology for Billions (ICT4B) project at the University of California at Berkeley, where he's a professor of computer science. ICT4B seeks to develop and deploy technology for Third World conditions, where connectivity is limited and power unreliable. Its goal is to create sustainable businesses.

Brewer has examples of how technology can make a big difference in developing regions. In Tanzania, the child mortality rate was cut in half by using computers to track diseases. In West Africa, a sensor network that figured out where to spray larva sites for black flies helped free up enough farmland to feed 17 million people. In Tamil Nadu state in India, the ICT4B project is working to deploy enough wireless kiosks so that everyone is within 20km of a rural health center.

But this kind of work does not only make sense in a feel-good kind of way. The billions of low-income people on this planet are a tremendous untapped market. As Brewer says, "the aggregate wealth among the poor is not trivial." Grameen Telecom has made a profitable business out of bringing cellphones to more than 50,000 villages in Bangladesh.

Furthermore, millions of people who are now poor will join the middle class during the next decade. Their incomes will be lower than First World incomes, but the demand for low-cost consumer devices such as PCs will be high.

Bringing solutions to the Third World requires some serious, creative engineering work. Since existing technology may not work very well there, new thinking is needed. That's why the ICT4B project has a long-distance media-access controller project that seeks to extend the use of Wi-Fi to long-distance communications. Participants are starting by redesigning the software to make more efficient use of channel bandwidth. This may someday lead to new hardware designs.

There are more challenges. Speech recognition needs to improve so that illiterate people can access computer-based systems. Networks need to be designed so they can tolerate frequent power outages. Combining biotech, IT and nanotechnology could yield cheap wireless sensors that could be deployed by the millions to detect biological or chemical hazards.

Many people are looking for the next "killer app" for electronic design. One possibility lies with the billions of people on this planet who haven't yet had the benefits of advanced technology.

- Richard Goering

EE Times

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