Nicholas Negroponte explains how he is able to produce a laptop for just $100 and how it will help educate the poorest and most remote child

Eliminating poverty, stopping wars and saving the environment are such daunting tasks that it is arrogant or mad to think there is a single answer to any of these problems. Yet it is equally certain that whatever solutions we find will include education, probably as a key component. In some cases, education may be the total solution.

Education worldwide is not a happy scene today. Some 80% of all students live in poor countries, many in rural areas where schools and teaching are primitive at best.

Economic development over the past three centuries has been synonymous with urbanization. To be rural has meant to be poor. Yet the worst type of poverty is urban poverty, where the problems of scarcity are compounded by disease, violence, pollution, personal degradation and squalid hopelessness. Rural poverty, by contrast, often simply means primitive living. Though onerous, that world is far less deadly than the slums.

Telecommunications can stem the tide of urbanization by bringing education, healthcare and jobs to rural areas. It is also inevitable that this technology will continue to spread from rich nations to poorer ones as costs continue to drop and available bandwidth increases. As a result, more of the world’s children, no matter how poor or remote they are, will have some sort of access to communications.

One laptop per child

Schools today often measure themselves by their ratio of kids to classroom computers. Some boast of attaining a misguided ideal of two students per machine. More commonly, hundreds of children must share a handful of computers that are often locked away after school hours. While anything is better than nothing, the overwhelming majority of these machines are desktops, which makes them practically useless for a child’s general, hour-to-hour learning experience, inside and outside school. Instead of providing children with fractional shares of a stationary computer’s limited availability, the schools need to own portable, book-like, electronic devices that are general-purpose computers with full access to the internet.
So far, the closest, large-scale approximation of this ideal has occurred in the American state of Maine. Four years ago, it adopted the “one laptop per child” concept and distributed nearly 40,000 laptops to middle-school students. This was one of governor Angus King’s proudest achievements.
“Everything in government is incremental – little steps,” he says today. “I believe history occurs in jumps. This is a leapfrog idea, a leap ahead. Giving all the children this powerful device, this key, is a way of unlocking capacities that otherwise would go unrealized. The concept has been proven.”
All of us learn how to walk and talk by interacting with the world. Yet at about age six, we are informed that henceforth all learning will flow from teachers and books, as if to correct this mistaken process. The personal, connected laptop restores interactive, seamless learning to its proper place. Until now, the problem has always been that the machines were prohibitively expensive.

Laptop economics

We were told it was impossible to build a $100 laptop. Guess what? It isn’t. By developing this device in a non-profit association and selling it at cost only to governments in quantities of 1 million or more, expenses for sales, marketing, distribution and profit virtually disappear. Those represent at least 50% of the cost of a laptop, more typically 60%. The remaining costs can be reduced to $100 in two ways: display innovation and putting software on a diet.

Software obesity accounts for three quarters of your processing needs. It is chiefly responsible for the lagging productivity now caused by slow and unreliable systems. Today’s $1,000 laptop is not a system to which any of us should aspire.
Instead, we propose a much simpler, instant-on, fast and easy-to-use laptop whose price will float with currency and memory costs. The price will start at close to $100 apiece, but with volume production and a steady stream of technological innovations it will drift ever lower. Each subsequent model will be simpler, cheaper, more versatile and easier to use.

Affordable and fast

We are working on our designs in the open. When we have an idea for better price or performance we tell anyone who will listen. The result is that companies contact us offering to help, often to donate their know-how and intellectual property to be involved in this project, and to have an opportunity to get their work to the mass market quickly. Innovation is stifled through the so-called protection of intellectual property.

The first machines will have a dual mode display. One will be full-colour mode equivalent to the best television or DVD mode. The second will be black and white reflective, at three times the resolution and readable even in intense sunshine. Try using your current laptop in the sunlight.

Our laptop has a 500MHz processor, 128Mb of dynamic random access memory and 500Mb of flash memory instead of a hard disk with delicate moving parts. It will have four USB ports so that peripheral devices such as printers, music players and DVDs can be attached and synchronized. This is a full-featured general-purpose laptop with a “skinny” Linux operating system that will run faster than most laptops on the market today.

Most important of all, these laptops have wireless broadband. Among other things, this works as a mesh network so that each laptop talks to its nearest neighbours, which in turn talk to their nearest neighbours and so on, thereby creating an ad hoc, local area network.

The result is a network created by the kids so that a town full of them can be connected to the internet as long as just one or two of them are, maximizing scarce internet connections. As this system evolves, machines will be able to share memory and do all sorts of peer-to-peer collaboration.

The $100 price tag is also achieved by using open source, a well-established movement that has proven reliable enough to account for about half of the world’s server market. Linux is not yet widely used for desktops or laptops, but it will be. This project will give it just the push it needs.

If you are sceptical of open source, glance at the online Wikipedia, an encyclopedia written by its readers. The Wikipedia is not only more current than any other reference text, but it improves over time. Open source software can and will do the same. The internet itself is a product of open source development.

Localised content

Likewise, educational content will be developed everywhere, localized to such an extent that text and the user interface could be available in all 320-plus languages of Nigeria. The largest company in the world cannot do that. But the people can.

Since textbooks could be distributed via these same laptops, the economics work handsomely. Brazil spends about $20 a year per student on textbooks, a sum it could easily recoup if it switched to our laptop, given its expected lifespan. Furthermore, the kids will not be limited to the few out-of-date printed textbooks, but will have access to an increasing percentage of the world’s libraries, thanks to Google and others. The ebook argument alone justifies one laptop per child, but it is merely the Trojan horse. The soldiers who come out at night are the kids themselves. We are so often told: “You cannot just give a kid a laptop and nothing else.” Well, you know what? You can.

Most kids, when given an electronic game, ignore the manual in order to explore this new world for themselves. It is the same with computers. The secret is not so much to show kids what to do and how to do it, but to give them the tools to make things. The short but rich history of constructionist learning is filled with undeniable evidence that children learn far better when actively engaged, interacting and building. They learn more by making a simulated frog than dissecting a dead one. Computer programming itself is a means to express your own understanding of something and the so-called debugging process is an even more powerful step in “learning learning”.

Interactive learning

For all these reasons and more, the only rationale not to give a connected laptop to each child in the world, just like we give one pencil per child, is cost. The amount of $100 is by no means low enough. But it is a start. In doing so, maybe kids will grow up more global, more understanding, more peaceful and less poor than their parents.
In his recent address at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, captured the power of the $100 laptop. He said: “With these tools in hand children can become more active in their own learning. They can learn by doing, not just through instruction or rote memorization. Moreover, they can open a new front in their education: peer-to-peer learning.”
Annan added: “Studies and experience have shown repeatedly that kids take to computers easily – not just in the comfort of warm and well-lit rich-country schools, dens and living rooms, but also in the slums and remote rural areas of the developing world. We must reach all these kids. Their societies and the world at large simply cannot do without their contributions and engagement.”

CV Nicholas Negroponte

Nicholas Negroponte is the Wiesner Professor of Media Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founding chairman of MIT’s Media Laboratory and chairman of One Laptop per Child.