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At Technology Review’s Emerging Technology Conference at MIT today, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, showed off the design of a laptop he hopes can be sold for just $100. At that price, governments in developing countries could afford to buy one laptop for every child, he said, opening up educational opportunities for millions.

Click here to see the $100 laptop design.

“If you take any world problem, any issue on the planet, the solution to that problem certainly includes education,” Negroponte said during his opening keynote speech for the conference. And “in education, the roadblock is the laptop.”

Negroponte said he had learned from previous work with schools in Senegal, Costa Rica, India, and other countries that simply providing access to a computer is the key to turning on a child’s innate creativity and curiosity.

“Even in the developing parts of the world, kids take to computers like fish to water,” Negroponte said.

Negroponte, along with MIT researchers Seymour Papert, Joseph Jacobson, and other colleagues, announced the $100 Laptop initiative in January, with corporate sponsorship from AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corp., and Red Hat.

The same companies will work together to manufacture the device, which, although still under development, will at a minimum feature a full-color screen, Wi-Fi connectivity, a processor that runs at approximately 500 MHz, and 1 GB of Flash memory. It will also have a hand crank for generating power in areas of the world without electricity.

Children would be able to take the computers with them wherever they go, learning languages, math, science, geography, and economics, as well as playing games and chatting online with friends. They will likely also be able to use the devices to draw and compose music.

Already, Brazil, Thailand, and Egypt have expressed interest in buying 500,000 to a million of these “revolutionary” laptops each as soon as they’re available. And dozens more countries have made inquiries.

Seymour Papert, an emeritus MIT mathematician and educational theorist who has spent decades promoting the use of computers for learning, told Technology Review earlier this week that he believes the laptops will help students enjoy subjects such as math, which is typically less engaging when done with pencil and paper. And while students will be able to play electronic games, they’ll also be able to write their own games, honing their planning and reasoning skills in the process.

A laptop’s multimedia capabilities, Papert says, can make it a good platform for communicating complex thinking about subjects such as global warming, which are often better understood visually.

Through the Internet, the computers will also provide a connection to the wider world, potentially creating a sense of openness and global community that could counter ills such as terrorism.

“I think there is good reason to believe that if everything were open, fewer bad things could happen,” says Papert. “So give everyone the tools to observe and communicate what is happening.”

But not everyone agrees that providing laptops, even inexpensive ones, is the best way to help children around the world. Many would rather spend the money to hire additional teachers and to reduce class sizes.

That, in fact, was the popular sentiment in Maine when then-governor Angus King proposed giving a laptop to every seventh grader. According to Papert, email to the governor’s office ran against the initiative by a whopping 15 to 1 margin.

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