The real star at an Oct. 19 lecture by Nicholas Negroponte was not the Media Lab co-founder and computer-aided design pioneer himself but what he brought to the Department of Architecture classroom at MIT — a model from his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.
After Negroponte finished outlining plans for creating and distributing the inexpensive computer to children in developing nations, the audience crowded the podium to examine the cheerful green-and-white 2B1 model. While Negroponte apologized for bringing a model, not a prototype, his audience still wanted a closer look. They turned and twisted the screen and the wi-fi antennas. They pressed fingers to the kid-size keypad. They weighed it in their hands.
"It's adorable," exclaimed Diane Sloan, a 1980 graduate of MIT's Sloan School. "It doesn't feel cheap," said Francois Proulx, a student visiting from Montreal. "It has something about it," agreed Yasmine Abbas, a 2001 graduate of MIT's architecture program. She added, thoughtfully, "If it touches the children, it's going to change a lot of things as well."
That is Negroponte's goal. Negroponte, who began his association with MIT as an architecture student in the 1960s, sees computers and technology as a way to help children educate themselves. OLPC, launched as a non-profit organization in 2005, aims to sell the laptops inexpensively to governments, which will then distribute them for free to children.
The goal, Negroponte said, is not merely to prepare kids for the technology market ("Let's hope when these kids are on the job market, Word and Excel don't exist," he said), but to facilitate the process of learning itself.
As he explained with a series of slides, the three principles underlying the OLPC are: "One: Use technology to learn learning, not to learn something. Two: Teaching is one way, but not the only way to achieve learning. Three: Leverage children themselves." That is, kids will find ways to use — and repair and de-bug — the computers if allowed free access, he said.
Of the 1.2 billion children in primary and secondary schools around the world, half live in rural, remote areas with limited access to education. "You can't just build more schools and train more teachers, you've got to leverage the kids themselves," Negroponte said. "I can take a Gameboy or PlayStation and drop it in the middle of the jungle, into the hands of kids who don't have electricity. They'll open the box. First thing they do is throw away the manual and the second thing they'll do is use it."
Negroponte described the challenge of keeping the cost of the laptops to an affordable $100. "Scale is key,'' he said. Also, machines will have "one-third" the number of pieces as a market laptop. Still, the Linux-based, dual-mode display machines will have a 500 MHz processor, 128 megabytes of DRAM, 500 MB of Flash memory, several USB ports and a broadband wireless system able to create a mesh network with other laptops. Fifty percent of the cost of a regular laptop or cell phone is for sales, distribution, marketing and profit. "We don't have any of those four elements," he said. The cost of each machine will be $138 in 2007, $100 by 2008 and $50 in 2010, Negroponte said.
Another challenge was designing a back-up power supply so the laptops may be used in remote areas without access to electricity. Initial models had a yellow crank that could be used to generate power. "Everyone remembers the pencil-yellow crank," Negroponte said. But "you just can't have a crank on a laptop." The crank has been replaced with a wind-up string system. The crank "still made a wonderful point: that human power is important," he said.
The first 1,000 working units are scheduled to be finished in November, "50 percent of which will be tested to destruction," Negroponte said. By summer, he hopes to be in production, with the first machines going to Brazil, Nigeria, Thailand, Libya and Argentina.
Moreover, $100 billion would be enough to supply "every child on the planet" with one of the laptops, he said.
For more information on One Laptop Per Child, go to www.laptop.org.