Developing systems, challenging assumptions

Mary Lou Jepsen with the  XOI was on the phone today with Mary Lou Jepsen, founding Chief Technology Officer of One Laptop Per Child and now founder of Pixel Qi, a commercial spin-off company of OLPC that will be putting their new ambient-light-viewable displays into cell phones and laptops. Mary Lou and I both started off in holography about twenty years ago, and have (miles permitting) been friends for most of that time. And she has never ceased to amaze me: both in her talent and in her fortitude.

I haven’t been following the OLPC story that closely, partly because—as a freelance—I know that it’s too big a story: it’s of interest to consumer journalists, tech writers, even those writing the political pages. In that kind of environment it’s hard to sell freelance pieces. But talking to her today made me realize that there was a story about engineering that was worth my telling… a story about how to not just think about building a system from the ground up, but to re-think it. A story about how to innovate.

Mary Lou said that, working at OLPC, there was no single innovation that she was most proud of: it was leading the work to put the whole thing together into a practical, packaged, working system that she felt was her biggest contribution. The new machine, the XO, is the cheapest, greenest, lowest-power computer in the world. This couldn’t have happened by trying to produce a stripped-down version of an expensive laptop. The whole approach had to be completely different.

That’s easy to say, but I didn’t really understand how deep this philosophy went until she gave me an example: she started explaining how she planned to get 5-10 times the power efficiency (and so battery life) from the new Pixel Qi laptops as from the ones we carry around today. The answer (which AMD gets and Intel doesn’t!) is to turn off the central processing unit (CPU) when you don’t need it.

The truth is that most of us, most of the time, have vastly more processing power than we need: like when web browsing or typing an e-mail. This is obvious. People know this. But no-one thought to question the unwritten assumption in computer design that the processor needs to be on whether it’s busy or not. By finding ways to bypass the CPU when  idle—by building a machine in such a way that the input/output devices can operate without it—Mary Lou and her colleages will be able to supply us with the interface we need without having to have a supercomputer running in the background for no reason.

That’s an innovation. And it doesn’t take too many such innovations to create something that’s really new. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Photo: Mary Lou Jepsen with the XO.