Fast Company

No Child Left Offline

The Fast Interview: MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte on Intel's "dishonesty" and the long, tough road to the $100 laptop.

Here's the 21st century version of a chicken in every pot: a laptop for every child. Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT professor, is founder of One Laptop Per Child, an international non-profit that created the XO laptop, a durable machine that began mass production in November and is designed for kids in the world's poorest and most remote regions. If nothing else, Negroponte has proven that no grand vision goes unpunished. Last fall a BusinessWeek writer panned the program in a column titled, "It's Time To Call One Laptop Per Child A Failure." The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story under the headline, "How a Computer for the Poor Got Stomped by Tech Giants." And it's not just the press. Negroponte has sparred with critics such as Bill Gates of Microsoft and Craig Barnett of Intel. His testy relationship with Intel briefly turned into an uneasy-alliance but blew up this month when, Negroponte says, an Intel salesperson tried to convince the government of Peru to scrap its deal with OLPC and instead buy the company's competing laptop, the Intel Classmate. Intel has blamed the split on "philosophical" differences. Negroponte presses on.

Why spend so much time and effort on laptops instead of basic human necessities like food, shelter, and peace?

Substitute the word "education" for the word "laptop" above and you will not ask again.

OLPC has a wiki in 20 languages with 4,442 pages, and 2,000 files and 2,000 registered contributors. Has this global community helped shape your project?

You bet they have. One "kid" suggested no Caps Lock key and we took his advice. Collaboration and open source are at the root of everything we do.

What's wrong with a Caps Lock key?

Most people hit the caps lock key by accident. It is particularly likely since it is close to the "a" (often used in English and Latin languages) and just above the "shift," itself an act of making uppercase. I am willing to bet that 99 percent of the world's users spend time deleting uppercase letters that have inadvertently appeared because they accidentally hit "caps lock."

You've said this is an education project, not a laptop project. What do you mean?

The goal is providing the opportunity for children to learn. What makes the laptop so suitable is the constructionist approach on which we are built. Learning by doing, peer-to-peer teaching, and computer simulation are all part of the same equation. We all learned how to walk and talk by interacting with our environment, with real goals and rewards. At about the age six, we are told to stop learning that way and, instead, to do most of our learning by being told, by books or teachers, on a basis of, "Trust us (adults). It will be good for you." The laptop brings back a more seamless kind of learning.

Have you seen this work?

We have seen it work all over the place: Cambodia, Costa Rica, Brazil, just to name a few. In one school, 100 percent more kids showed up for 1st grade the next year. They were not coming from the neighboring village. No. What happened is that the six-year-olds in school told those who were not that school is cool.

What do you hope will be different with kids who use these laptops?

That they keep the passion for learning, the passion that all children have when they start school.

Computers can also be great time wasters: some kids spend vast amounts of time on games, surfing the net and downloading music.

Kids should play games, download music, chat with each other. They should think of the tools for those as exactly the same tools for "school." Learning is not limited to teaching. I am always amazed when parents ask me the above in reference to their own child spending too much time with electronic games, for example. The same parents would be delighted to have their child practice the piano eight hours a day. The truth is a child should not spend eight hours a day doing anything. The job description of a child is to do many things.

Why the insistence on open source?

Because sharing and collaboration are very important pieces of education. We think that computer programming itself is an important part of "learning (about) learning." Our keyboard even has a "view source" key that you can hit and to see the source code of what you are running.

Most computers have been designed for a very different sort of user than the ones you are aiming for. What has OLPC done differently?

There are several emphases. One is to include advanced video and music processing not typical of office machines. Another is collaborative hardware -- the mesh network and the operating system reinforce that. A third is the basic needs of the developing world, including but by no means limited to, the need for sunlight readability and power constraints. Almost none of our kids have electricity at school or home, thus the need for human power and, in turn, the requirement to average less than two watts (versus the 35-40 watts of your laptop).

Why did you pursue your two-for-one strategy -- allowing consumers to buy one XO laptop for themselves and one for donation?

It has been a knock-out success, generating almost $3 million per day, for 45 days, from the bottom up -- people funding people, a concept in keeping with the spirit of OLPC and open source.

Still, you've taken a fair amount of criticism for the "twofer" offer and other things. The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek are two recent examples. The overarching theme of this criticism seems to be the feeling that the project isn't living up to its own ambitions. What's your reaction?

Elephant skin is needed. Look, no matter what you do, when a project is big, disruptive, and counter-intuitive, it is going to receive criticism, often stoked by commercial interests. When you challenge both Microsoft and Intel, you are not taking a picnic in the garden. Since day one, I have predicted 3 million units in year one and that is what we will hit. But if we hit 2.5 million, so be it. There has been a lot of talk, pretty gratuitous talk, about the $100 laptop costing $187 right now. It will drop to $100 in two to three years. The Give One Get One program re-sharpened our moral compass by allowing us to enter countries that otherwise would have had to wait (Rwanda, Haiti, Mongolia, Cambodia, Afghanistan). Both The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek have a business-oriented point of view and have been looking at this project as an "industry disrupter" and laptop project, versus a humanitarian, non-profit, educational project. The world did not have a $3 version of Windows, nor $300 laptops before we started. Everybody thought, in 2004, that one laptop per child, olpc lowercase, was a stupid idea and computer labs in schools were better. Nobody argues that any more. We could pack up our tent and declare victory. We are not doing that because kids would not be well served. We have to move down market, less features, more simplicity, hit $100, and go lower. Along the way, there will be large amounts of criticism. We'll learn what we can, but certainly not wilt from it.

The New York Times reported that your partnership with Intel dissolved after you discovered that an Intel saleswoman was trying to undermine your agreement with the government of Peru. What went wrong?

Intel was truly disingenuous. I am surprised at the degree of dishonesty. Look at the way they leaked the situation, while asking us to collaborate on a press statement….Intel issued a statement to the press behind our backs while simultaneously asking us to work on a joint statement with them. Actions do speak louder than words in this case. As we said in the past, we view the children as a mission; Intel views them as a market. The benefit in the departure of Intel from the OLPC board is a renewed clarity in purpose; we will continue to focus on our mission of providing every child with an opportunity for learning.

Does the OLPC project represent a threat to private companies?

The World Food Program does not threaten McDonald's.

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7 Comments

  • Shonika Proctor

    I actually wrote about this topic back in March of 2006. I felt at that time and still do today that while the $100 handcranked computer for developing countries sounds like a great idea for helping improve the Digital Divide, is it a creative way to get digital advertising in front of second tiered nations?

    http://ezinearticles.com/?One-...

  • Nice Kicks

    It is a sad situation in most of these under-developed nations. Education is not being properly given and in a world where one is so cut off, the internet opens all of the doors of possibility.

    True, water, food, and peace would be great things to give now, but those are only band-aid solutions to a greater problem. Education is the only hope for these nations in need.

  • James McIntyre

    Nobody refutes the idea that technology is flattening the world, making the world smaller. But when Nicholas Negroponte wants to utilize his and Seymour Papert's cutting-edge science to make sure entire countries do not get left behind in the formation of our new "smaller" world.. people just don't get it.

  • Franky Effendy

    Great idea, but who's going to teach those children?
    I think most of children will sell or exchange it with food.

  • Martin Nickel

    I think it's an idea that sounds good until you think about it. Computers in America's classrooms have apparently done little to promote actual education and may rather be hindering.
    Information is important. I can see many reasons to subsidize computers and internet access in various global contexts. I see no need whatsoever to create a one-off poor people's computer.
    The (original) VolksWagon idea doesn't apply to rapidly changing technologies like computing.