The Symbiotic Computer and the End of Poverty

By eliminating the mouse they made famous and hiding the keyboard, Apple brought us to the age of the real personal computer. Let’s call it the Symbiotic Computer for its symbiosis with us humans... Apple gave us the new technology, but it was Google who steered it towards an open-source model, quickly grabbing market share with the Android platform while delivering free- to low-cost applications in a server-based technology management solution, just like the one I proposed for telecenter networks...The telecenter shared-access model needs to be updated to leverage the realization of the Symbiotic Computer. Digital inclusion can now be understood to occur in two distinct stages: digital literacy and professional capacity-building. The first is to be accomplished with the help of the Symbiotic Computer, the second with the Personal Computer...

Marco Figueiredo - December 29, 2011

Over the past decade I have been actively engaged in the search for models of diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to help alleviate and eradicate poverty in the world. The rationale is simple: if people have access to information through the Internet, they have a better chance to rise from poverty as well as overcome oppression and injustice. While there are many factors necessary to overcome poverty, access to cyberspace is the primary enabler. As a computer engineer and researcher at NASA and a technology entrepreneur, I am familiar with the process of technology creation, but it has taken me about a decade of social entrepreneurship to learn what many sociologists first told me: it’s about the people, not the tools!

I started my quest holding conversations with the experts in poverty alleviation in Washington and New York serving the United Nations, the World Bank, and several other international development agencies. I eventually moved to one of the poorest rural areas of my home-country Brazil to try and learn with the poor and gain first-hand knowledge of the socio-economic dynamics that perpetuate long-standing patterns of exclusion and poverty. Three years later I came back to the U.S. having launched the non-profit organization Gems of the Earth. I then set out to help create the Center for Community Informatics at Loyola University Maryland.

Throughout my journey, I soon figured out that ICTs weren’t ready for widespread adoption. The Personal Computer (PC) isn’t all that personal. It’s more of a business automation tool. Trying to engage those who are digitally illiterate has been a struggle. On the other hand, trying to convince folks to invest in the improvement of the technologies to serve the poor has been even harder. I’m often told that “the poor can’t pay for new technologies,” and that “they should just wait for them to trickle down.” The assumption is that only the wealthy can pay for the development of ICTs.

My solution was to focus on the shared-access model as the way to reduce the costs of technology diffusion and facilitate peer-to-peer learning. I went as far as suggesting in 2002 that the Brazilian government create a network of 100,000 community telecenters and thereby become the first country to guarantee broadband access to its 180 million inhabitants. The government eventually adopted the idea in what became known as the 2010 National Broadband Plan. It is not clear yet if the successor of the popular President Lula will meet his commitment to complete such a telecenter network by 2014.

The shared-access model required a few technological adjustments if it were to succeed. The first proposal was to simplify the graphical user interface of the Personal Computer through a layered approach. Novice users would see less options at first, starting with applications that would give them a direct benefit. As they became more familiar and satisfied they could uncover deeper layers of complexity. One of the first applications would be voice and video communications that would allow them to talk and see distant relatives at little to no cost. That would promote diffusion and motivate them to keep coming back for more meaningful experiences.

Another one of the first applications the novice user would see would be a fun learning tool that would teach them to use the mouse, as I found the mouse device to be another impeding factor in PC acceptance among the digitally illiterate. All applications would be simplified to allow click-of-a-mouse navigation and minimal or no use of the keyboard - a dreadfully complex tool. I suggested the keyboard be hidden in a sliding platform placed under the table.

Another improvement would be in the management of the technology. I proposed a cloud-based approach in which the operating system running in the telecenter computer got its configuration from a central server somewhere on the Internet. The user could request the installation of a new application, but configuration control stayed at the central server, which could also push an operating system update. The user could keep his/her data in the cloud or in flash memory devices. The light PC architecture would use no moving parts and would be affordable to replace in its entirety when defective. This may not seem as a breakthrough concept today, but it was so when I first developed the prototype for a commercial telecenter franchise venture.

The use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) was a key to the success of this model. Proprietary software is too expensive to serve the poor. Its price would have to come down by an order of magnitude to be affordable. Anything above $10 dollars is too costly; the price point should be about $1 dollar, which is easily justified by the increase in market size through widespread digital inclusion. Besides, the proprietary software model of the PC world requires continuous paid upgrades or exclusion. It only works when there is a direct financial benefit derived from its use, as in the case of holding a job where experience with the software is required.

The technology breakthrough I was looking for first appeared in the mobile phone market. It was Steve Jobs who once again integrated a set of new technologies and used Apple’s buying power to bring affordable touch-screen computers to the marketplace. By eliminating the mouse they made famous and hiding the keyboard, Apple brought us to the age of the real personal computer. Let’s call it the Symbiotic Computer (SC) for its symbiosis with us humans. The Symbiotic Computer changes our personal lives. If you ever took a smartphone to bed you know what I mean. I can finally admit the sociologists were right. It is about the people, not the tools. But what if the tool is embedded in the people, can we make a distinction? At this point, I say some of the ICT tools are becoming emotionally embedded in people. The day may soon come when these tools might also be physically embedded in us.

It is said that the electronic spreadsheet was the “killer app” that made PCs useful. It makes sense if you see PCs for what they are: business automation tools. The “killer app” in the SC world is the telephone. No wonder the first one was called the iPhone. But unlike the electronic spreadsheet, which was an innovation in itself, the telephone existed long before the SC came about and it fast became one more among hundreds of thousands of really personal applications. The SC is essential if four billion people who are digitally excluded are to join the digital age. It is the ultimate digital literacy tool. And if the smartphone SC screen is too small, there is the tablet SC or the television SC. The SC involves every aspect of our personal lives, not just professional aspects like the PC did in most cases. The Symbiotic Computer is an innovative technology paving the way to the end of poverty.

Apple gave us the new technology, but it was Google who steered it towards an open-source model, quickly grabbing market share with the Android platform while delivering free- to low-cost applications in a server-based technology management solution, just like the one I proposed for telecenter networks. Is the shared-access model dead? Should the Brazilians cancel their 100,000 telecenter network? Not so fast as there are still challenges in SC adoption. The best and most useful SCs are still unaffordable to the poor: this is actually deepening the digital divide as the poor are offered ineffective solutions. I recently tested a low-cost tablet SC, and the experience frustrated even my four year-old daughter who was discouraged by the unresponsive touch screen and slowness of application processing. In contrast, we both felt great satisfaction when we tested a 1GHz dual-core processor smartphone SC, which is faster than any NASA spacecraft computer flying today. It will be perfect when it sells for $60 dollars instead of the current $600 dollars, and broadband access services become affordable to most people.

The shared-access model needs to be updated to leverage the realization of the Symbiotic Computer. Digital inclusion can now be understood to occur in two distinct stages: digital literacy and professional capacity-building. The first is to be accomplished with the help of the Symbiotic Computer, the second with the Personal Computer. The shared-access model needs to be adjusted to serve as a bridge between the two. It remains as the best way to reduce costs and accelerate technology diffusion for the sake of poverty eradication. The proven concept of free software delivered under central server control to low cost and low maintenance PCs must be adopted by telecenter networks. Proprietary software that is affordable or available free of charge with advertisements should work as well as it does in the Symbiotic Computer world. The demand for simplified PC user interfaces is not as high as before since users will be already familiar with SCs and more willing to learn an automated office environment to help in getting a job or running a business in the digital age.

Telecenters shall be Wi-Fi hubs that connect SCs to the Internet backbone, and provide a community media server to facilitate local content creation, dissemination, and affordable local voice and video communication. They can also provide cached Internet content like Wikipedia to reduce bandwidth requirements and lower Internet connection costs, and continue to provide access to more expensive resources like printers, scanners, copiers, video projectors, and media production tools. As a business model, the popular version of the successful Apple Store is yet to be implemented in the Android world. Telecenter networks can leverage on this approach.

Ultimately, the future is reserved for affordable gigabit broadband through fiber optics connected to the home, and at such point the shared-access model might not be as useful any longer, but it can definitely facilitate the early adoption. The quicker we get there, the better off we will be. Reduced poverty might increase our chances for world peace, and free up time and resources that we can invest in spiritual evolution. Throughout the journey toward the end of poverty, telecenters will continue to serve their communities as information and communication technology hubs. The telecenter peer-to-peer learning-model enhances a community’s ability to forge a socially just and progressive path towards environmentally sustainable development and better standards of living for all. The Symbiotic Computer marks a revolutionary step in the use of ICTs to end poverty. It also changes the assumption that only the wealthy can pay for new technology. The sheer size of the SC market will demand innovation directed towards the needs of the poor. The quicker a product reaches this market, the more successful its producers.

I agree it is about the people. May God continue to bless us!