Q&A: can a £15 computer rekindle the UK tech industry?

raspberry pi

UK charity hopes throwback hardware device could create a new generation of computer science hobbyists

UK charity Raspberry Pi has this week demonstrated a £15 computer that it hopes will rekindle interest in programming and computer science among children.

The matchbox-sized device is predictably low-spec, featuring a 700MHz ARM11 processor, 128MB of SDRAM, OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics, USB connectivity and a SD/MMC/SDIO memory card slot.

It might not sound like the most progressive of hardware, but that's not the point – the unit is intended to give children and hobbyists access to the nuts and bolts of a computer and teach them how to make them work. A far cry from the vacuum-sealed technology inside most modern consumer electronics.

We spoke to Raspberry Pi trustee Eben Upton, who is hoping the device can spark a re-emergence of the British technology genius.

Q. What was the starting point for the idea?

A. I used to teach at the University of Cambridge and was part of the process of interviewing sixth formers for Computer Science, and that's where I noticed the need to do something.

When I was there as a student in the mid-1990s, the typical skillset that undergraduates came through the door with would be assembly language, maybe a bit of C, BASIC and a certain amount of hardware hacking.

The big problem has been that people used to learn the stuff off their own back – you used to have hardware that you could hack on and that's a big problem

By the time I was actually interviewing, ten years later, that had changed to mostly HTML from people who had done a web page and the really good ones would maybe have done PHP – you'd get the occasional exception, but the skills have declined.

It was as if there was a pipeline of hobbyists and then one day we stopped topping the pipeline up with ten year olds and gradually this wave has passed through the pipeline, first through the universities and then the workplace.

The numbers are horrifying – you stop picking 80 students out of 500 applicants and you're picking 80 students out of 200. Then it's in the workplace and, before you know it, anyone you hire in their early 20s, you pretty much have to train them up before they can make a high-grade contribution.

Q. Is that a problem with the schooling system or a reflection on the way young people interact with technology?

A. I don't think this is something we should blame entirely on the education system, although we do feel the focus on ICT has driven out proper computer science from the school curriculum. But it never had a major take-up.

The big problem has been that people used to learn the stuff off their own back – you used to have hardware that you could hack on and that's a big problem.

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