The X PRIZE Foundation, the brainchild of entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis, is already working on everything from sending people to the moon, to cleaning up our oceans, to developing a real life Star Trek tricorder. And on Monday, the venerable non-profit announced another ambitious goal. It wants to bootstrap technology that will let the world's children teach themselves to read and write.
The newly launched Global Learning X PRIZE is offering up $15 million to fund open source software that can remake education in the developing world. Ideally, Diamandis says, the X PRIZE team is looking for software that is artificially intelligent, so it can better understand how students learn and what their interests are, in order to keep them more engaged in their education.
"This 200-year-old industrial age educational system that we all grew up in, in which we all sit in a classroom, the bell rings, and like cogs in a wheel, we change classrooms? Inevitably, half the students are lost, and half are bored," Diamandis told WIRED on Monday at the Social Good Summit in New York City, where the new prize was announced. "The question is: How do you change that so it's personalized education? That's possible, and that's the goal."
'We're aiming at kids who live in villages where there's nothing. This has to take them from complete illiteracy to basic reading, writing and numeracy.'
As Diamandis admits, there's no shortage of technological innovation in education these days. The last few years have given birth to models like the massively open online course, which promises to give an elite global education to anyone online for free. But as important as this technology may be, he says, it often "assumes a higher state of learning than exists." "If you don't have the basics of education, you don't know how to use the web and don't know how to type in a URL," he says. "We're aiming at kids who live in villages where there's nothing. This has to take them from complete illiteracy to basic reading, writing and numeracy."
Teams will have six months to register, after which they'll have 18 months to build their software. "It could be teams from Microsoft and Google or two kids in a garage from Nairobi," he says.
Then, the foundation will test those technologies with children throughout Africa, and it is now raising money through crowdfunding to expand that test from 5,000 kids to 10,000. Once the winning team is chosen, Diamandis says he plans to work with companies like Google, Samsung, HTC, and other device manufacturers to ensure the software is integrated into all of their new phones and tablets.
"I want to make this software available for every tablet and smartphone out there," Diamandis says. "Imagine that when someone gets a tablet in the future, it will become their teacher, as well."