GENERATION ALPHA: How to change the world
The birth of the reprogrammable generation: toys that give children the tools with which to learn how to code
Tucked away on a social media timeline is a comment in reference to the student uprising that followed the Florida shootings: "We raised these children on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, which taught them that if they just fought hard enough they could change the world. Why are we so surprised that they are trying to do so?"
Each generation will find that those who come before and after are somewhat alien to their own, and thanks to technology that shift is taking on new shapes that cannot be defined simply as "the ones born before the war" and "the ones who like avo toast an awful lot".
Humans are a by-product of their environment. So if the kids rebel when they read Harry Potter, what will happen when we raise an entire generation on coding?
Generation Alpha is the awful official name for those born after 2010. They are the first generation to not just use technology as a tool to better their environments but instead have it wholly integrated into every aspect of their lives from birth. It’s little wonder that the newest trend in toy manufacturing is coding integration.
This week Nintendo will launch Labo in SA. It is a cardboard-box toy system that works with the Nintendo Switch, a gaming console, to create a new and unique gaming experience.
This means young gamers can build contraptions using cardboard templates — such as a fishing rod or a robot backpack — and when they incorporate the Switch, they can use infrared, gyros and motion sensors to bring the creation to life. This makes it possible to catch a digital fish or become a giant robot that smashes fake cities.
The merger of handcrafting with tech is the type of boon that could have tangible educational benefits.
But the Nintendo Labo is groundbreaking for a different reason: it allows its users to reprogram the Nintendo Switch itself.
This means your child will now have the ability to reprogram buttons and sensors to perform tasks the otherwise powerful gaming console has never done before. In the "Toy-Con Garage" — the easy-to-understand plug-and-play coding system — a child is taught how to reprogramme the Switch. Users learn how to change the pitch of a sound to create a makeshift drumset, or manipulate motion and light sensors to create a digital ping-pong table.
Labo is just the latest in this growing trend. Last year Lego released Lego Boost, with blocks that let kids program functions into their creations.
With a coding app, children can use lights, motors and sensors that can be programmed to move, rotate and read colour, distance and sound. This means "Frankie the Cat" can sense the orange nib of his milk bottle and fart if he drinks too much.
Taking programming play one step further is littleBits, a company that makes colour-coded magnetic electronic circuit board building blocks that allow for fully customisable inventions. Its modular electronics snap together.
Its Droid inventor kit won the 2017 Creative Toy of the Year award for its ability to let
a child build and program a see-through R2-D2 droid.
For now, Boost and littleBits are relatively hard to come by locally and are still seen to be niche educational products; whereas Labo will be available in a commercial gaming section of your local toy store for the same price as a standard video game (R999-R1,199).
Labo also encourages children to think bigger. It’s one thing to follow a series of steps to build your own droid; it’s another thing entirely to allow users to rework the flagship tech of a company like Nintendo.
In 1981, the BBC (in anticipation of its new educational show The Computer Programme) created the BBC mini, a rugged computer with a keyboard that had 16KB of RAM with a CPU that clocked speeds of 2MHz. Thanks to its user-friendly operating system, the "Beeb", as it came to be known, taught a nation computer literacy. What was to be a run of 12,000 units turned into 1.5m, and the Beeb went on to find a home in over 80% of UK schools and even made its way in various forms (and knock-offs) to the US, Germany and India.
The Beeb changed the face of British education and is still credited with inspiring some of the brightest engineering minds.
It was the inspiration for other DIY computers such as the Raspberry Pi and the BBC’s newest generation of the Micro:bit that has taught more than 1m 11-year-olds how to code.
That is the impact that just one machine can make.
Now consider Nintendo’s impact on Generation Alpha — who never knew technology’s limits to begin with. We may have created a new generation that doesn’t just want to change the world, but has the means to reprogram it.