Negroponte Defends Merits of $100 Notebook Project

Q&A: MIT Media Lab professor Nicholas Negroponte says his plan to build low-power, wireless-enabled laptops in bulk includes strategies to generate the power they will need.

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.

/zimages/1/28571.gifTo 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."