Handheld devices for herdboys in Lesotho

In the Guardian (May 2) Ed Pilkington wrote about Ray Kurzweil, futurist and head of Google’s new Singularity University, which is housed at the headquarters of NASA in Silicon Valley and opening for students in July. To quote, this university will ‘bring together some of the biggest names in frontier disciplines such as bio- and nano-technology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence.’ The first cohort of 40 students will work together for nine weeks trying to come up with new ideas for tackling problems such as climate change, world poverty and hunger.

As Pilkington tells us, Kurzweil has an amazing record of inventions. In the 1970s he wrote programs to enable computers to read text and synthesise speech. By 1984 he had perfected electronic music synthesisers; by 1987 he had developed speech-to-text.

What particularly caught my eye was Kurzweil’s new idea of using the explosion of cellphones across Africa as an opportunity to write ‘software that would easily diagnose and provide remedial directions for leading local diseases’, as Pilkington wrote. Users of iPhones know how many applications (apps) they can already obtain: Kurzweil’s proposed app would give cellphone owners and their families a valuable source of advice regarding preventive medicine, presumably in their own language.

Mobile phones didn’t exist when I first wrote about information technology and education. Nor did the Internet. My own idea of what might happen in Africa was that the herdboys of Lesotho, looking after the cattle, would have a handheld device from which they could learn to read in their own language.

Herdboys in Lesotho still don’t have devices like that and perhaps they never will. But tens of millions of people in Africa do have mobile phones now, and before long they will be able to use them for far more than business deals and social chat. BDRA’s friend, Dick Ng’ambi at the University of Cape Town, is among the foremost African researchers in this field. See also, kindly provided by Gabi Witthaus, this interesting description: http://rolexawards.com/en/the-laureates/louisliebenberg-home.jsp.  


*Hawkridge, David (1983, reprinted 1985) New information technology in education. London and Baltimore: Croom Helm and Johns Hopkins University Press.

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  1. Standing on the shoulders of a giant « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog

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