Ethiopian Kids Hack OLPC Tablets In 5 Months With No Help

Give a thousand Ethiopian kids -- who have never seen a printed word let alone played around with expensive consumer technology -- a tablet, and what happens? They hack it. Obviously.

The amazing One Laptop Per Child scheme has been offering up Motorola Xoom tablets to kids in developing countries for a while. OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte explained how they’re rolled out, and the impact they have, while he was at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week:

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 organisation or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.

That is just sensational. To go from never having seen a written word -- remember, the towns these kids grow up in have no street signs, no newspapers, no food packaging -- to hacking an Android tablet in five months shows how inquisitive and adaptable the human brain is. And it makes me so very, very happy. [Technology Review via Dvice]

Image: OLPC



    I'd love to know what this "Hacking" involved. Either it wasn't that hard, or the kids weren't nearly as illiterate as is claimed.

      Exactly. Smells like utter BS. So they have NFI what they're doing, but they somehow managed to "hack" as they say, the Android OS whilst having no exposure / experience.

        Kids learn so quickly and while networking together I think it is definitely plausible.

        The articles don't give enough to really go on, but the tablets were clearly preloaded with a lot of educational learning apps to teach english etc. and they say the desktops were locked down to prevent changes. The 'hacking' involved is basically just figuring out how to disable the desktop lock which in theory gave them access to all the other apps that were already on there, I'm assuming including apps that actually used the camera. It's all pretty cool, but we're lacking context for the true level of difficulty.

          From the linked article...
          "Elaborating later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” McNierney said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.”"

            Obviously I read that and as I said, this provides no context for difficulty or even what 'hacking' the camera on even means. There's a difference between randomly (or otherwise) poking buttons until it unlocks and figuring out passwords or installing software hacks/unlocks. If it was as simple as pushing a few buttons to circumvent the lock it says way more about the 'scientists' than it does the kids.

              I imagine a lot of the older generations couldn't work their way through such a problem so it's impressive regardless for a kid who's never used anything like this before to find a way through and has he said "it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning."

              Based on the article, "poking around" seems to be a valid approach for problem solving. Maybe we westerners ought to apply more of it instead of desperately trying to look too smart.

                @stomp>>> Fact is kids were able to decipher the Android OS settings, which were deliberately deactivated, within a space 5 months, without ever seeing a computer let alone an electronic device their entire existence. This speaks volumes to the human ingenuity in every aspect. What does it matter if kids in Ethiopia or kids in Alaska or even in London. What does it matter? As a matter of fact, what should be celebrated is the human spirit displayed by these Kids! There is hope yet for the human race!!


    Here is what I want to know - They have never seen a on/off switch before yet they have power to charge the devices?

      Perhaps if you'd taken a moment to read the source, you would have seen the following:-

      "The devices involved are Motorola Xoom tablets—used together with a solar charging system, which Ethiopian technicians had taught adults in the village to use."

        Ah fair enough - comment retracted.

        Why would I read a the source when I can have you read it for me? :P

        Perhaps if you'd taken the moment to read this article, you'll notice the quote is contradictory
        "We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being."
        Sure, out of context, but it doesn't make camel_racer's confusion incomprehensible.

          Plus it's like 9am. Give a man a break.

      What they meant by hacking, was that they managed to get their cows in one of those primitive grain mills (you know, walking in circles with the wheel thing in the middle), having converted that grain mill into a power generator, to charge the androids.

      More info here:

      It uses a solar powered charging system. Techs have taught the adults how to use the solar charger, and the the techs go out once a week to swap memory cards which track the children's tablet usage.

    I believe that after 14 days they were trolling Apple fanbois on Giz.

    From TFA: 'they're actually Motorola Zoom [sic] tablets plus solar chargers running custom software'.

    Sounds like all they did was enable the camera, wouldn't call it hacking but it's still a pretty coot feat by kids that have supposedly never seen a PC before, goes to show how user friendly android has become. i mean i work in IT and some people don't even know how to turn a computer off and back on.

    Last edited 01/11/12 9:44 am

      Turning a computer off is not that simple.
      Have you got Windows 8 yet!!!!!

        Is it any less intuitive than hitting the start button to make it stop?

          Ahhh! I see what you did there you sneaky person you!

    By 'hack' i bet they mean 'turned the camera on in the settings'

      Nope. Hacked = "with machetes".

      +1. People who hack android every day would have a hard time doing it on the device itself without a PC.

      Yes, because there's a setting in Android: 'Camera On/Off'.

      Try again.

    I see where this dastardly plan is going. With India and the philippines getting progressively more expensive, they're training the next generation of call center operators in Ethiopia?

      That's capitialism 101
      Find the next cheap country

      At least we'd be giving them jobs to help grow their economy.

    "Hacking" does not always refer to hard core programming. To me Hacking is using anything for a purpose it was not intended for by making modifications or breaching security settings. While these kids may not have a high level of technical skill I'd still consider what they did to be "Hacking".

    Having grown up in Africa I feel I can comment, and I find this " To go from never having seen a written word — remember, the towns these kids grow up in have no street signs, no newspapers, no food packaging" very hard to believe.

      I was wondering that myself. In the photo they are clearly wearing western clothes. I'm sure they would have some washing instructions on the tag!

    The might not have food... but at least they can play farmville.

    This is actually a gross indictment of our society.

      There's no mention of internet connection. They were preloaded with learning apps and locked down to see if people could teach themselves to read. Dial down the woe.

    I don't like this. It reminds me of the same stunt pulled with apes at some zoo, and it makes me think the people behind this stunt are trying to equate Ethiopian children with animals. Especially when the opening line is "Give a thousand Ethiopian kids..." How could any decent editor miss this obvious reference to the infinite monkey theorem?

    And why the shock? Are Ethiopian brains supposed to be so incapable of basic problem solving, we should be shocked and awed at their ability to do humanly intuitive things? Where is the study performed with poor rural white, Asian, and {insert race here} children? Why were Ethiopians specifically targeted?

    What a dumb and insulting exercise.

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