Negroponte Defends Merits of $100 Notebook Project

By eweek  |  Posted 2005-03-10

Negroponte Defends Merits of $100 Notebook Project

Providing electronic communications to underserved populations has been one of the challenges for as long as many of these technologies have existed. Cable television, for example, started in part to provide video where broadcast or satellite couldnt. Projects such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Alice Springs School of the Air, both in Australia, leveraged two-way radios powered by sewing-machine treadles, now largely supplanted by the Internet.

A few decades ago, Arthur C. Clarke, a noted science and science-fiction author, proposed bringing information to remote villages using a combination of televisions and satellite broadcast.

In the early 1990s, initiatives such as Montanas Big Sky Internet worked to bring even one or two computers to reservations and remote sites, using store-and-forward not only for e-mail but also for queries to the Web and its predecessors, such as Gopher and Usenet.

More recently, there have been reports of the Pony Express of the 21st century—Wi-Fi-equipped motorcycles driving through areas, picking up and receiving e-mail without needing to stop.

One of the latest proposals for bringing computer and Internet technology to remote regions that are often unelectrified and unnetworked comes from Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, with what has been dubbed the "$100 Notebook Program."

It is a proposal for creating low-power, wireless-enabled notebook computers in major quantities targeted at a per-unit cost of about $100.

Guy Kewneys Feb. 2 column, "Power Politics Overshadow $100 PC Concept," took issue with aspects of the plan, particularly the power requirements.

Negroponte responded briefly to Kewneys column, pointing out that the Media Lab is working on a variety of power options.

To read Kewneys column, click here.

Daniel P. Dern conducted this interview—by e-mail, due to Negropontes travel schedule—for as a more in-depth follow-up.

What is the relationship of your plans to other initiatives, such as the "Wi-Fi-on-Wheels" motorcycles, or the Global Services Trust Fund efforts discussed at the Arthur C. Clarke Institute?

Arthur is an old and dear friend. He has been an inspiration since we met in 1976. I was with him the day my book "Being Digital" came out.

In 1981, Seymour Papert and I started in Senegal, under the Paris-based "World Center."

[Editors Note: Papert is a mathematician, a co-founder with Marvin Minsky of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, and a founding faculty member of the MIT Media Lab, where he continues to work.]

Steve Jobs gave us Apple IIs. That, and later work in Colombia and Costa Rica, was geared toward primary schools—way ahead of its time. In the 90s, the Media Lab had projects in what you call "providing life-changing information technology to rural areas and Third World countries" in Brazil, India and a handful of other countries that formed Digital Nations at the MIT Media Lab.

One project was called LINCOS. The Pony Express you mention was one of those projects as well. The story is not new, and we have been at parts of it for almost 25 years.

What is new is the attack, focused on the laptop, for several reasons:

One, while not solved, telecommunications is working itself out, and bandwidth scales, in the sense that it is very elastic for asynchronous applications. A 2-megabit line can well serve 10 or 100 kids.

Two, we believe that children learn far better with a "one laptop per child" model, something they own and carry back and forth, use for work, play, at home, etc.

Three, the cost of laptops does not scale the same way; 100 kids costs 10 times 100.

Next Page: Negroponte says having a village server would be "wrong-minded."

Village Servers

?"> Do you feel the server approach (for wireless, e-mail, etc.) makes sense?

Not sure what you mean by the server approach. If you mean a village or school server, with access through cell phones, Palmtops or so-called "thin clients," it is wrong-minded and misses the key point.

On the other hand, our approach, a local mesh network, has points of access to the Net, and those may be server-like, located in a school, for example. In very remote places, where there is neither electricity nor wireless telephony, we will have a satellite hub in the village. There is a server, but not a "server approach."

Read more here about wireless mesh networks.

The eWEEK article references a 75-watt power load. But theres been no shortage of lower-power portable computers, such as the early ProLinear MiniNote (x86, 4 AAs, DOS), and the HP OmniBook 300 and 400 series (x86, 4 AAs, Windows 2.0, DOS) ran Windows 2.0 and DOS ... not to mention a wide range of "Jupiter"-class Windows CE machines that can run on AA batteries, such as the IBM WorkPad Z50 (8 AAs), the NEC MobilePro 700 series (6 AAs), or the AlphaSmart (3 AAs) Do you have any thoughts for lower-power computers?

Yes, we are looking carefully at all of the above. We are considering two approaches, emissive and reflective. The former shows promise at 100 lumens per watt by the end of 2006, with 85 percent efficiencies in some cases.

Reflective can go far lower, using no power whatsoever when the image is not changing. Traditionally, these cannot do video, but we have some chemistries that can, though not in the first or second release.

What are some of the power-generating initiatives, either through the Media Lab or elsewhere, that you believe will help provide the necessary power? Will the wind-up or treadle options be sufficient for the computer you have in mind?

Over the past 10 years, the Media Lab has done a series of projects in parasitic power, particularly in the form of toys that kids play with, that generate power during "toying." A major goal is to make the $100 laptop so power-friendly that it can be wound up. Treadle is a fine option, and well be offering that as well. Much of the invention to be done going forward is to do more of this kind of work.

We have also been in discussions with Dean Kamen [inventor of the Segway Human Transporter] with regard to his Sterling engine, as an innovative way to provide power to remote schools—with a side benefit of gallons of pure drinking water.

Perhaps you can see why I was so shocked to see such a reputable publication suggest that we were ignoring this matter. The author should have made the small effort to ask.

Click here to check out the column, "Power Politics Overshadow $100 PC Concept."

Do you feel the AMD $185 computer initiative could fit into your goals?

Yes, indeed. In fact, AMD is a close working partner in this effort. Their PIC machine is superb. They have done a surprisingly fine job.

Language and literacy are often cited as barriers in the "digital divide." How do you propose to address the need for localization/internationalization of any text aspects, and how will nonliterate people be able to use the devices?

Keep in mind our focus is primary and secondary school. In the projects my wife and I run in Cambodia, teaching English is as big if not bigger than using computers.

Localization is crucial, and I am beginning to learn what a good job the open-source community is starting to do. Our plan is to be Linux-based, and we are hardly alone in looking at the issues of internationalization. Open source is certainly the best way to be multilingual.

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