This year marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of the first Raspberry Pi computer. The latest version is now opening up new opportunities for research and study on the International Space Station.


Raspberry Pi, space and the AI skills challenge

David Cleevely

Dr David Cleevely CBE FREng FIET served as the chairman of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and its commercial subsidiary (Raspberry Pi Ltd) from 2014 to 2020 and continues to be involved as a Member of the Foundation and its Supporters Club. He was founding Chairman of the Cambridge Science Centre and Founding Director of the Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge. He also chairs three committees for the Royal Academy of Engineering (Enterprise Committee, COVID-19 Triage Committee and the Policy Fellowships Working Group).

A little after 10 am GMT on Tuesday 21 December 2021, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying a Dragon 2 spacecraft en route to the International Space Station.

This was an unmanned mission carrying sup- plies to support life in space and equipment to undertake scientific research. It is worth remembering that the most expensive object that humans have built — the ISS — is essentially a science laboratory in orbit. This flight was trans- porting materials for a study of the delivery of cancer drugs; a bioprinter for experiments investigating wound healing; materials for a study of how detergents work in microgravity; and Christ- mas presents for the astronauts.

Every mission to the Space Station is remarkable, but this one was extraordinary because it was also carrying two specially adapted Raspberry Pi computers. I believe sending such computers into space will help us address the AI skills challenge.

The Raspberry Pi phenomenon

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of the first Raspberry Pi, a low-cost, credit-card sized, programmable computer, invented in response to the problem that too many young people grow up without learning how to create with computers and digital technologies.

The project started with the relatively modest ambition of inspiring a few thousand young people to study computer science and engineering by providing a programmable computer for the cost of a textbook – $35. The founders were inspired by the excitement they saw in the first wave of the personal computing revolution in the 1980s, when several lines of code had to be written in order to get a computer to do anything. For many, that early experience of programming led to a career in computing, solving problems, and founding companies that have changed the world.

That is what the inventors of the Raspberry Pi wanted to recreate and, crucially, at a cost that would make computer science accessible to young people for whom the price of technology was a real barrier to learning.

Over the past decade, it has grown into a global phenomenon. Over 45 million Raspberry Pi computers have been sold (the vast majority manufactured in South Wales) making Raspberry Pi Ltd the UK’s most successful computer company by volume.

Millions of young people all over the world have used Raspberry Pi computers to get started on computing, while the number of students choosing to study computer science has never been higher. Admissions tutors report that students often talk about being inspired by getting hands-on with a Raspberry Pi.

In addition, the latest generation are fully fledged desktop PCs capable of streaming ultra-HD video and running all but the most demanding software, providing an affordable solution to the digital divide that was so starkly highlighted when schools were closed at the start of the pandemic.

What started as an educational project is now also seeing an impact in industry, with over half of the Raspberry Pi computers sold going into the hands of engineers and entrepreneurs who are using them across an extensive range of industrial and commercial applications. Raspberry Pi computers are automating factories, being arranged into clusters to mimic supercomputers for training purposes as well as being increasingly found embedded in consumer devices.

The educational mission

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has an educational mission: to empower young people to realise their potential through the power of computing and digital technologies. Low-cost computers are an important part of how the Foundation addresses that mission and that part of the business is delivered through its commercial subsidiary, Raspberry Pi Ltd.

What started as an educational project is now also seeing an impact in industry, with over half of the Raspberry Pi computers sold going into the hands of engineers and entrepreneurs.

The Foundation has also evolved into one of the world’s leading education non-profit organisations in its own right, creating learning experiences and products that have already helped millions of young people all over the world learn new skills and knowledge.

The Foundation supports schools to teach computing and computer science through curricula, resources, platforms, and teacher training. In England, it is part of the consortium running the National Centre for Computing Education on behalf of the Department for Education, supporting every primary and secondary school to introduce computing, including training tens of thousands of teachers each year. Globally, over a quarter of a million educators have used the Foundation’s free online courses to learn more about computing and how to teach it.

Millions of young people are also supported by the Foundation to learn how to create with digital technologies outside the classroom: through free online resources and apps, the world’s largest networks of coding clubs, and partnerships with youth and community organisations in more than 40 countries. All of this is underpinned by a significant investment in rigorous research, including through the Raspberry Pi Computing Education Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

One thing we know about motivation for learning is that context matters. Young people are more engaged in learning about computer science when they can see its relevance to their own lives.

The AI skills challenge

While there are lots of positive signs that the work of the Raspberry Pi Foundation — alongside many other organisations committed to improving computing education — is having an impact, the pace of technological innovation is accelerating all the time, and education and skills policy desperately needs to keep up.

One of the most significant trends is the explosion of interest in artificial intelligence, including machine learning, robotics, computer vision, and natural language processing, driven by the need to gather, store and process colossal amounts of data. 

As Stuart Russell argued in his 2021 Reith Lectures, increasingly powerful AI has the potential to bring about the most profound change in human history and is already transforming every aspect of our lives.

It is vital to ensure that young people — whatever their backgrounds — are equipped with the skills to thrive in an unknown technological future. A recent Royal Society report on machine learning recommended that schools should ensure that key concepts in machine learning are taught to those who will be users, developers, and citizens. The UK Government’s National AI Strategy includes a strong commitment to universal AI education for young people.

In 2021, the Raspberry Pi Foundation partnered with The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, to run a series of research seminars with the world’s leading academics and thinkers on AI skills, learning from pioneering practice across the globe to define the key concepts in AI and determine how they can best be taught.

This is an emerging field, but it’s already clear that we urgently need more investment in research and experimentation to understand what works, followed by a sustained national effort to support schools, teachers, and young people.

Astro Pi: your code in space

How does all of this relate to Raspberry Pi computers on board the International Space Station?

This is the Astro Pi Challenge, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Raspberry Pi Foundation that started in December 2015 when British ESA astronaut Tim Peake first took Raspberry Pi computers to the ISS as part of the Principia mission.

Since then, 54,000 young people from 26 countries have written code and experiments that have run on these specially augmented Raspberry Pi computers, which included sensors and cam- eras that collected environmental data and images of life in space and on earth.

We are now seeing growing interest from young people in the potential of AI, machine learning, and image recognition to help them understand challenges like the climate crisis, deforestation, and pollution.

The new Astro Pi units that were sent to the ISS on 21 December 2021 represent a significant upgrade, with something like 40 times the processing power, a new high quality camera and a Google Coral machine learning accelerator. These upgrades open up the possibility for young people to gather more data from the onboard sensors, including sharper and full-colour images of earth, with the potential to develop machine learning models that allow high-speed, real-time, on-device processing.

One thing we know about motivation for learning is that context matters. Young people are more engaged in learning about computer science when they can see its relevance to their own lives. Putting Raspberry Pi computers in space creates the opportunity for young people to experiment with machine learning and AI in order to better understand problems like the climate crisis. I cannot wait to see what they make of the opportunities.