Raspberry Pi's Eben Upton at Technology Frontiers: "Programming will make you a better doctor"
After a handful of days of furtive suggestion, spring made its presence felt in London today, where the second Technology Frontiers conference got underway. The Economist-organized event sees leading technologists and cultural figures take to the podium to beclue and/or befuddle some 250 ideas-thirsty businesspersons. Among them was Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton, who proved to be one of the day's most lucid speakers. He went into some detail as to the inception of the Raspberry Pi and the need for more computer programmers.
If, like Upton, you were born in the developed world in the late 70s or early 80s, his reminiscences of growing up around relatively inexpensive computers like the BBC Micro may well be familiar. Such computers, he points out, presented a programming prompt at launch, inviting users – children and adults alike – to experiment with programming. Such computers spawned a generation of casual programmers who, when they arrived at university to formalize that knowledge, could already program.
By 2005, when Upton had completed his studies and was himself interviewing undergraduates at Cambridge, this was no longer the case. If applicants had experience "coding," this typically amounted to writing some HTML for the web (which isn't programming), perhaps with a touch of back-end development in a few cases. Upton complained that, since that time, a chunk of the limited 60 weeks total term-time available for an entire undergraduate degree has to go on teaching the basics. Cambridge University, you'll have realized, has notably short terms.
Upton attributed the relative lack of programming marbles in today's youth on the ubiquity of what he calls "fixed function devices" such as games consoles and smartphones. Even the PC came in for criticism for being an expensive, fragile beast that parents are wary of letting their children experiment with and dismantle lest they permanently break the thing.
Enter the Raspberry Pi: a computer small enough and robust enough to be thrown daily into a schoolbag, while costing no more than the price of a textbook, or so they thought. Upton joked that when the team realized that textbooks can be considerably more expensive they might have had an easier time engineering it. The basic Raspberry Pi costs US$25.
Theorizing that they might sell an initial run of hundreds to UK schools, Upton approached the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones to inquire after BBC-branding the computer. This was a non-starter, but Cellan-Jones did ask if he could video the prototype: a video that went on to attract 600,000 pairs of eyes, considerably raising expectations (Upton recalls an "oh shit" moment at the dinner table one evening.)
As we now know, Upton and the Raspberry Pi Foundation were able to match the hype, and the Pi has gone on to sell a million units. Gizmag went armed with the question of how many Pis are ending up in the hands of adult hobbyists, but Upton addressed this himself during his presentation. Although he thinks only 30 percent are going to children, this still amounts to 300,000 children with access to a programmable computer. Upton reasons that even 1,000 extra programming graduates per year would make a significant difference to the industry (not to mention the benefit to the 1,000 individuals themselves.)
Upton went on to enthuse about the practice of programming, claiming that, as a programmer himself, he effectively gets to play with Lego all day. He suggested everyone should learn to program, asking the audience how many have repetitive tasks they need to perform in their work. The ability to program, he explained, spelled freedom from such tasks. "Programming will make you a better doctor," he went as far as to say, though he also pointed out that the benefits for, say, novelists may be less pronounced.
As a pure computer programmer, Upton said that it might have been easy for them to overlook the importance of the GPIO interface which allows the Raspberry Pi to be connected to electronics components, enabling the computer to be used as part of hardware and electronics projects. Upton pointed to the success of the Arduino microcontroller board as a clue that the Pi should cater to similar hobbyists, and says that many of the early projects have been DIY hardware projects. Why is that? “Moving a pixel around a screen is a lot less sexy than it was in the 1980s,” he said. Robot arms? They're another story entirely.
Tomorrow is the second and final day of Technology Frontiers. We'll likely have more to report.