I’d Like to Teach the World to Type

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

David Kirkpatrick

WANT TO GRAB SOMEBODY’S ATTENTION IN the tech world? How about mentioning that you got e-mails from Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell the night before, all of them weighing in on your current obsession. That’s what Nick Negroponte–legendary founder of MIT’s Media Lab and techno- impresario extraordinaire–said to me last month after he came offstage at the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. Negroponte had just presented the idea that engaged the tech biggies’ attention: His gigantic and very possibly quixotic quest to put hundreds of millions of $100 self-powered laptops into the hands of poor students throughout the developing world.

He showed the Pop!Tech crowd a picture of his device–a micro-laptop with an electricity-generating crank and a swiveling seven-inch screen–and drew a roaring ovation. Others are gushing too. Says Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. has contributed $2 million for the project: “Nick’s endeavor has the prospect of potentially transforming the lives of millions of children in the developing world.” Google has also chipped in $2 million. Negroponte’s nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which will distribute the device, has raised a total of $10 million, with more on the way.

As for Gates, Jobs, and Dell, their input reflects their relationships with Negroponte–“You have to remember I’ve known Steve since he was very young,” he says. “I’ve known Michael forever. I’ve known Bill forever”–more than it does their commitment to the plan. Jobs initially dismissed the laptop as a “science project” but is now contributing ideas. Dell had his staff vet the cost of the device’s components but isn’t otherwise participating. And Gates is driven, at least partly, by competitive motivations: He’d like Negroponte to use Microsoft software rather than the free open-source alternatives that Negroponte currently favors.

But the fact that they’re paying attention testifies to Negroponte’s stature, his powers of persuasion–and the immense appeal of his plan. Clearly,
Negroponte’s message has a seductive simplicity. As he puts it, “One laptop per child: Children are your most precious resource, and they can do a lot of self-learning and peer-to-peer teaching. Bingo. End of story.”

The computer doesn’t even exist yet, and it faces huge obstacles. Many veterans of past efforts to empower the world with technology are skeptical, but that doesn’t deter Negroponte. He’s jetting around the world, lobbying presidents to commit to at least one million laptops. So far, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva has agreed to buy a million, he says, and Chile, Argentina, and Thailand are lining up. There’s even interest domestically. Governor Mitt Romney wants half a million for the kids of Massachusetts. At presstime, engineers were working furiously to prepare the first prototype in time for the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia on Nov. 16; they hope to start production next year.

Not surprisingly, the tiny laptop will be a stripped-down affair, usable for basic word-processing, Internet, and e-mail. It has no hard drive, instead using flash memory like that in a digital camera. The processor, from AMD, runs at a pokey 500 megahertz. Though spartan, the design is also ingenious: Each laptop will include a Wi-Fi radio transmitter designed to knit machines into a wireless “mesh” so they can share a Net connection, passing it from one computer to the next. Though the laptop has a power cord, that cool little crank can also provide roughly ten minutes of juice for each minute of turning.

The key to chopping the price to $100: reducing the cost of the screen, the most expensive part of a laptop. So in April, Negroponte lured Mary Lou Jepsen away from her job as chief technology officer in Intel’s display division to become CTO at OLPC. Jepsen has invented a display that she thinks could be built for $35 or less (compared with the typical $100 or more).

Negroponte’s team is seeking not only a technological breakthrough but also a teaching breakthrough. They believe that illiterate kids can, with a little instruction, learn to use computers on their own and then use the laptops to teach themselves to read. After that comes math, history–you name it. Alan Kay, a Xerox Parc veteran, is working with MIT mathematician and educational theorist Seymour Papert to build software that “watches” each student and makes suggestions. Papert’s “constructionist learning” approach encourages children to reach conclusions through trial and error.

The impediments, needless to say, are numerous and daunting. “Most schools in the developing world don’t even have textbooks,” says Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute. “How the heck are they going to pay for Internet access?” Even Hector Ruiz, CEO of AMD, which gave $2 million to OLPC, says success will require “developing larger ecosystems around … tech support, application development, training, and business models for the Internet service providers.” Those elements aren’t close to being in place, and Ruiz thinks the laptop’s price won’t drop to $100 for two to three years. Yet even skeptics are loath to pooh-pooh Negroponte’s activism: “If he can pull it off,” Hammond says, “my hat’s off to him.”

If anyone can pull off such an unlikely challenge, it may be Negroponte, who combines his infectious bluster with a gilded resume that encompasses the Internet Age. He ran the Media Lab for 20 years, wrote an early pro-Internet book called Being Digital, and helped fund Wired magazine. It doesn’t hurt that he’s independently wealthy or that his brother John is the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Negroponte’s passion for bringing technology to developing countries began when he and his wife bought laptops for all the kids in a Cambodian village.

Negroponte’s laptop-with-crank has sparked such envy that he now plans to partner with a hardware company and market a pricier version to subsidize the nonprofit model. Friends warn him that if he doesn’t use Windows, Microsoft might launch a similar PC. That, Negroponte says, would be great. Poor kids might then get laptops even faster. “What if we fail?” he asks. “Failure means it’s $142.07 and six months late. Failure doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen or it’s a bad idea.” Perhaps. But for now, with ever more tech titans and heads of state riveted by the idea–if not yet the reality–the e-mails will continue to fly.

Source: Fortune, Print