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A Hundred-Dollar Laptop for Hungry Minds

The MIT Media Lab is working with corporations and governments to turn their vision of a computer for every child into a reality.

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.

Opinions have changed since 2000, however, and today thousands of seventh graders in Maine have received laptops – in part because Papert pointed out that the cost of the laptops was far less than the outlay for hiring enough teachers to significantly reduce class sizes. He also suggested the laptops could help reduce teachers’ workloads, allowing students to work independently or more easily seek help from peers.

Others have suggested that laptops are luxury items, especially in countries where children lack food and health care. Papert responds that education is necessary for the long-term development to address these needs.

Shiva Mirhosseini is the leader of the Boston chapter of Shabeh Jomeh, an organization of Iranian professionals that, among other activities, purchases computers and other educational resources for needy children in Iran. She says the $100 Laptop could “nourish and empower a group of people who could make a big difference in the long term.”

Still other critics have suggested an alternative: distributing refurbished desktops or cheap smartphones instead of new laptops. Neither of these options is preferable, however, in the view of Negroponte and Papert, since desktops are costly and nonportable and smart phones are difficult to type on. The two researchers argue that, far from being costly luxury items that become obsolete in months, computers can be inexpensive, durable tools. (Papert points to the digital watch he has been wearing for ten years.)

All of this depends, of course, on getting the cost of the first version of the device down to $100, and lower in the next generation.

“One hundred dollars, though that sounds impossible, is still far too expensive,” Negroponte said in his address.

The group has built working trial versions of the device. Jacobson says the keys to an inexpensive, yet still useful laptop are an inexpensive screen and a lean operating system that can work with a slower, cheaper processor and less memory.

R&D continues on the operating system and the group has not made a final decision about the screen, although the LCD used in inexpensive portable DVD players is a strong candidate. Marketing and distribution costs will also be saved by selling in bulk to governments.

Maintenance and Internet connections aren’t counted in the $100 price tag. To address those costs, the designers have considered making the parts easy enough for a child to replace, and they’re giving the devices mesh-networking capabilities (see ”Mesh Networking Matters”) using Wi-Fi, which will allow them to connect to other nearby laptops or to a central computer for Internet access. The speed and number of these connections will vary according to the capabilities of local schools. 

Durability is another issue. Since kids will be using these computers, they’ve been designed to survive drops and to be water- and dust-resistant. (Papert, however, believes that if kids value the computers, they’ll take care of them.)

Theft is one more concern. That issue is addressed, in part, by the distinctive design – so that a stolen laptop would be obvious. But “if our real goal is to get these to as many needy people as possible,” Jacobson says jokingly, “actually theft is a great distribution channel.”

The $100 Laptop project “is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Negroponte told the conference audience. Children connected via their laptops to the global Internet, he and Papert believe, will develop the knowledge and ambition needed to make their countries more effective competitors in global markets.

“Only part of learning comes from teaching,” Negroponte said. “A lot of learning comes from exploration.”

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