[Paleopsych] CHE: MIT Researchers Unveil a $100 Laptop They Hope Will Benefit Children Worldwide
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Mon Nov 21 18:43:01 UTC 2005
MIT Researchers Unveil a $100 Laptop They Hope Will Benefit Children
News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.16
By JEFFREY R. YOUNG
Saying they hope to bring every child in the world a computer,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers are set to unveil a
laptop that will cost around $100, run on batteries that can be
recharged by turning a crank, and connect to the Internet wirelessly
by piggybacking on the connection of a nearby user.
The machine will make its debut today at the United Nations' World
Summit on the Information Society, which is taking place this week in
Tunis, Tunisia. Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT's Media Lab, is
expected to show off a working prototype during a speech at the
In January, Mr. Negroponte announced plans to create the low-cost
laptop and to work with developing nations, as well as with state
governments in this country, to have school systems purchase the
machines and give them to millions of students around the world. That
would narrow the digital divide, and could spark innovations in
commercial laptops as well.
But it remains to be seen whether the prototype persuades leaders to
purchase the laptops on the scale that Mr. Negroponte hopes -- at
least a million units per country, with production beginning at the
end of next year, possibly in some of the buyer nations. Mr.
Negroponte said in an e-mail interview this week that production would
not go forward until he had commitments from several countries with
orders totalling at least 5 million laptops. "I hope it will be 10
million," he added.
MIT has helped set up a nonprofit organization, called One Laptop
per Child, that is coordinating the development of the laptop and
working with government leaders. The nonprofit group has received
$1.5-million each from five companies -- Advanced Micro Devices,
BrightStar, Google, News Corporation, and Red Hat. Each company gave
an additional $500,000 to the MIT Media Lab to support the laptop's
Though some might argue that poor children in developing nations have
greater needs than shiny new computers, leaders of MIT's effort say
that the educational benefits of Internet access far outstrip the
"There is no other way that has been suggested of giving people a
radical change in their access to knowledge except through digital
media," said Seymour A. Papert, a professor emeritus of learning
research at MIT's Media Lab who is involved in the laptop project.
Mr. Negroponte said he was not yet ready to accept purchase orders
from anyone because he wants government leaders to look at the
prototype first and see if it meets their needs. "We need to have the
flexibility to do this right, not on an artificial deadline," he said.
"Also, it would be foolish for anybody to sign a [purchase order]
without seeing it."
"Come February or March, that should all change," Mr. Negroponte
The project's leaders are in talks with several nations, including
Brazil, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Thailand, and South Africa, that are
potential buyers of the laptops. "No country has signed a check," said
Mr. Papert. "The status is that there's been a lot of interest, and
some countries are very far along in the process that they would have
to go through in order to do it."
The governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, a Republican, is calling
for his state to buy one of the laptops for every Massachusetts
middle- and high-school student, starting in late 2006.
The screen is the feature the laptop's developers are most proud of,
said Mr. Papert. It has two modes -- color and black and white. The
black-and-white mode consumes very little energy and has an extremely
high resolution that makes for easy reading, even in sunlight. It will
measure either seven-and-a-half or eight inches diagonally -- about
the same size as screens on portable DVD players.
The machine can be configured to use either two or four rechargeable
C-size batteries. By using two batteries, users can also insert a
hand-cranked charging device to recharge the machine on the go. Mr.
Negroponte said he hoped the laptop would run at least 10 minutes for
each minute of cranking. That means students will get a physical
workout while using the machines, but they will be truly wireless and
When a user is near an electrical socket, the laptop can be plugged in
using a power cord that doubles as a carrying strap.
The laptop will run Linux, a free, open-source operating system. It
will have a flash memory drive, which uses less energy than a
conventional hard drive but also has less capacity. The capacity of
the drive will depend on how much the equipment costs at the time the
laptops are produced, but officials say the laptops will probably hold
either 500 megabytes or 1 gigabyte of data. That means the laptops
will hold less information than most iPod digital-music players.
Though $100 is the target price for the laptops, producers may not hit
that right away, Mr. Negroponte said during a presentation about the
project at a technology conference in Cambridge, Mass., in September.
"One thing that we've told governments is our price will float," he
said, and that the governments will get the equipment at cost.
"Whatever the price is hereafter, it's going to go down, not up." He
added that the machine might cost $115 at first, but might later drop
to something like $85 as the production process became more efficient
or technology costs went down.
Mr. Papert said there were features he wanted on the machines that
were not possible because of cost constraints. For instance, there's
no built-in camera, as originally planned, and no DVD-ROM drive, he
said. "All along the line it's trade-offs and compromises." The
machine will have several USB ports so users can connect such devices
The laptop's designers also promise that the laptop will not change
much, and that any future machines will be fully compatible with the
Political Battles Ahead
It is not yet clear that the project can clear the bureaucratic and
political hurdles necessary to get foreign governments to spend
millions on laptops and their distribution.
In fact, an official in Chile has recently indicated that the country
wouldn't be signing on anytime soon. Hugo Martínez, director of a
program in Chile that provides technology services, told the newspaper
La Tercera that the country was not planning to join the project
immediately. "The first shipment of computers from Negroponte's
project is going to be delivered between December of 2006 and January
of 2007, and for that reason it would be overly idealistic to commit
[to buy] a certain number of computers that do not yet exist." He also
noted that the educational value of providing laptops to students was
still not proven.
Mr. Negroponte said Thailand and Brazil had expressed "the most
sustained commitment" to the project. "We have one of our people full
time in Brazil, as of the beginning of November," he said.
Mr. Papert said Brazil was interested in the project not only for
educational reasons, but also because it hopes that participating
could help put the country on the map as an electronics producer.
"They're looking for a niche in the high-tech market," he said. He
noted that Brazil might produce one million laptops for use in Brazil
and another million for export to other countries in the region.
Officials in Brazil could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Romney, the Massachusetts governor, hopes to purchase laptops for
his state as part of a broad education-reform plan he submitted to the
Massachusetts legislature in September. Mr. Romney requested some
$54-million to pay for the laptops, support, and training for 500,000
"Governor Romney's goal is to help prepare students for success in an
increasingly competitive and technological world," said Felix Browne,
a spokesman for the governor. "He believes that laptop computers are
powerful tools that can help kids pursue their own avenues of
discovery and take their learning beyond the classroom."
Massachusetts would not be the first state to give out laptops to
students. Maine started giving out Apple iBooks to all seventh-graders
in 2002, as part of a project that Mr. Papert was also involved with.
The program in Maine "is producing some very good results," Mr. Papert
said. "There's more engagement -- they're learning it better with more
enthusiasm." He noted, however, that the laptops "are not, on the
whole, producing a radical change in what the children learn." That's
because of resistance to change by some education leaders, he said. He
said laptops would likely have a bigger impact in developing nations.
"In places where there's hardly any education at all, there's also no
conservatism about the school systems," he argued.
"People in developing countries really want to develop -- they really
want to change," he said. "They see it is conceivable for a country to
pull itself up from the lowest to the really highest levels of
economic operation, and everybody thinks education is a part of that."
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