Intelligent Machines

Incubating Programmers

Gadgets aren’t made hackable enough to encourage young people to become innovators in computing.

Today’s kids are proficient computer users but usually know little about what’s happening under the hood. The Raspberry Pi, a $25 computer the size of a credit card, is my attempt to fix this problem—and to create a new generation of engineers.

I bought my first computer in 1989 at the age of 11. It was a BBC Micro “Model B” with 32 kilobytes of RAM and a two-megahertz 6502 processor, and I bought it with games and schoolwork in mind. But in common with many in my generation, I found myself using it to write simple programs and got my first experience of engineering. When I arrived at the University of Cambridge to study computer science in 1996, I found myself surrounded by people who had been exposed to the same sort of computing environment.

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The situation had changed beyond recognition by the time I joined the university teaching staff in 2004 and began interviewing prospective students for that same computer science course. Applicant numbers had halved, and HTML had replaced assembly language in the typical skill set. A major culprit in that decline was the replacement of eight-bit microcomputers in the home by game consoles and PCs. Game consoles are designed to be nonprogrammable, and modern PCs, with their graphical interfaces and polished programs, strongly discourage programming. A person must now go out of his or her way to get a taste of programming, though it used to be the default thanks to computers that booted to a simple command prompt.

In 2006, along with some colleagues, I began to contemplate trying to fill this now-empty niche with a programmable machine for children. After six years of development, the Raspberry Pi was the result. It’s a Linux PC that a child can plug into an old television and use to get the same sort of experience I had with my BBC Micro in 1989. Our machine is capable of sophisticated graphics that engage children accustomed to modern computer games. It also comes packed with development tools suitable for students from kindergarten to college. I hope it will lead many more children to learn programming and, eventually, increase the number of applicants to courses in computer science and electrical engineering.

People often ask me why teaching children to program matters, since they seem so extraordinarily competent at using tablets, phones, and PCs. My answer is that society is in desperate need of a new generation of engineers, not just to design the next shiny computing gadget but to tackle the wider challenges that we face over the coming century.

Alongside this, engineering and programming can be enormously rewarding both intellectually and financially. Who wouldn’t want to equip their children for a life of playing with toys and getting paid for it?

Eben Upton is the founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which aims to stimulate teaching of basic computer science.

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