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Illiterate Ethiopian kids - hack their Zoom tablets?

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Elite Member
Jul 10, 2006
Thought this was pretty cool, even though it's from a website I generally consider to be intellectually one small step above mildew. http://www.fastcoexist.com/1681011/ethiopian-kids-hacked-their-donated-tablets-in-just-five-months

What happens if you drop off a thousand Motorola Xoom tablet PCs in a village with kids who have never even seen a printed word? Within five months, they’ll have taught themselves to customize the software, reactivate disabled features and, perhaps, start down the path of learning to read.

That last, critical part is at the core of a grand experiment in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. MIT is trying to crack the wicked problem of teaching literacy and other skills to 100 million or so first-grade-age kids in the developing world with no teachers or infrastructure. Since vast swaths of the world unable to provide even basic education, scaleable solutions are needed to complement the long road to achieve universal schooling (something that took the West centuries).

So Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC and MIT’s Media Lab, is doing what comes naturally to scientists: running experiments to see what works. OLPC’s latest trial in DIY education involved delivering Motorola Xoom tablets and solar chargers with custom software to two remote rural villages in Ethiopia where literacy rates are close to zero.

As Negroponte said at MIT Technology Review's EmTech conference this year, here’s how it went down:

"We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android."
This particular case involves only twenty children out of the thousand tablets they dropped off so YMMV, but it's still pretty cool. It's amazing to think that in the twenty-first century there are children who have never even see a written word and who, left alone, will never be literate. It's also amazing that kids can teach themselves so much, so quickly. I think there are three main components to intelligence - genetics, nutrition, and stimulation. We can't ethically do much about the first, and significantly changing the second for everyone who needs it may well be a losing battle, but look at what can be done with just the third? And this is with zero instruction, just an experiment to see how much the kids could figure out from a standard tablet.

Who knows what useful things these kids will know after several years? Surely there are things their villages could be doing better, things that be adapted to their villages, which can be learned that would otherwise remain unknown.

Hat tip to the AMX newsletter for bringing this to my attention.


Diamond Member
Feb 12, 2008
I heard about this a few weeks ago, and it is a cool story. Children learn at rates unseen elsewhere in the world. Western society cripples these children with too much attention, too much babying. Children in a third world are better off, for the virtue they are ignored and allowed to put their capacity to learn to work.


Diamond Member
Jul 6, 2005
Interesting read..

even though it's from a website I generally consider to be intellectually one small step above mildew
Never heard of the site, but after reading the condescending, elitist, and pedantic comments posted to the blog I'm inclined to agree.
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Platinum Member
Mar 12, 2003
Ethiopia is now one step closer to the American dream. If only they could stop having 15 kids per family, maybe there would be enough money to educate their children themselves. Some time after that then perhaps they can worry about getting "bling bling" tablets, Air jordans and spinners on their rims.


Elite Member
Super Moderator
Sep 30, 2003
Interesting (if true, I also find it hard to believe).

I guess Ethiopian porn outta be showing up on the net soon.



Diamond Member
Nov 8, 1999
Does this mean I have to worry about scams from Nigeria and Ethiopia now?
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