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A case for custom silicon in enabling low-cost information technology for developing regions

Zhiyoong Foo, David Devecsery, Thomas Schmid, Nathan Clark, Mohammad Ghaed, Ye-Sheng Kuo, Inhee Lee, Yongmin Park, Nathaniel Slottow, Vikas Vinay, Micheal Wieckowski, Dongmin Yoon, Cliff Schmidt, David Blaauw, Peter Chen, Prabal Dutta

Information and communications technology has the potential for deep social impact in developing regions but today’s devices – laptops, mobile phones, and other devices – are often still too expensive for many scenarios. We argue that custom integrated circuits can enable a new tier of low-cost information access devices with a price point to make them widely accessible. And, with control over the silicon, these systems can economically address many other challenges. To evaluate our claim, we focus on a deceptively simple problem – low-cost information access for illiterate populations through audio recordings – and show how custom silicon allows us to reduce cost, lower power, leverage conventional infrastructure in unconventional ways, and optimize the interface for usability. In particular, we show how a rural audio computer can be designed around just three chips, use an inexpensive capacitive touch interface, employ inductive communications for peer-to-peer data transfer, and employ data download over GSM voice and FM broadcast as two wide area options. The resulting design point – enabled by silicon integration – affords a device that can be built for $7.60, a third of the cost with COTS components.

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