BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nick Negroponte, how did 9/11 change your approach to ones and zeros, or digital – what you’ve been talking about for years?
NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE, FOUNDER, ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD: Well, my life changed in the sense that I was ready for a transition anyway, and have devoted my life since then to trying to help children in the developing world.
Because no matter what our problems are, whether it’s as big as the issue of peace, or eliminating poverty, or the environment, we know for sure that an element of the solution is education. And in some cases, it can be just education.
So, that’s what I’ve devoted myself to.
LAMB: What part of the world doesn’t have computers?
NEGROPONTE: Over 50 percent of the world has more-or-less no connectivity or computers, almost any way you count.
Cell phones are helping a bit. But really, one has to think of the developing world as needing to go in and make both the connectivity and provide the devices for kids to be connected.
LAMB: You’ve got the XO with you.
NEGROPONTE: Yes, I do.
LAMB: What is it?
NEGROPONTE: Well, let me start by saying that it’s a laptop, and it’s a pretty cool laptop. In fact, it’s got features that your laptop and mine don’t have.
If nothing else, you’ll notice it doesn’t have any holes in it. So this is dust-proof. It’s water resistant. It can be dropped.
But more important than anything is, it winds up. You can crank it by hand. And that’s very important, because 50 percent of the children in this world have no electricity at home or at school.
And so, if we’re going to try and connect children and get them to leverage themselves, then you can’t sort of give them little AC adapters to plug in, and sort of delicate machines.
So, we had to think very, very differently and design something from the bottom up, which is exactly what we did.
LAMB: So, where did you get the idea to try to provide this? And your operation is called One Laptop per Child.
NEGROPONTE: Well, One Laptop per Child was created as an organization three years ago. But the idea goes back, believe it or not, to sort of the late ’60s, when I started as a young professor at MIT, and had a colleague, whose name is Seymour Papert.
Seymour really tried to understand how children learn. And in the late ’60s, what Seymour discovered is that, if a child writes a computer program to, let’s say, draw a circle, that that child has to understand circleness differently than you and I understand it, or were certainly taught it at school, where somebody told us about a radius and a diameter and a circumference, and the relation between them. That was very abstract.
If a child writes a program to draw a circle, the child has to understand circleness differently. And more importantly, when you write a computer program, it never works the first time. It does something unexpected.
So, what you have to do is debug the program , go in and correct it and change things, and then finally get it to draw the circle.
The process of debugging is the closest we can come to thinking about thinking, or learning about learning.
And so, what Seymour and others and myself had been doing in the ’70s, we worked with kids in schools and computers before PCs, in the ’80s a lot with PCs in developing countries – Senegal, Pakistan and Colombia.
In the ’90s with connectivity, which today is called WiFi and WiMax, but try to connect kids in these remote parts of the world.
And in the early 2000s, we looked at the picture and said, well, what is it that industry isn’t going to do? Because telecommunications is moving forward. Prices are coming down. The regulatory regimes are becoming more friendly. Privatization is helping.
But the laptop – if you want to give each child a laptop, we had to look at that differently, because in the world of electronics – this is in general, not just laptops – the cost of electronics drops 50 percent every 18 months.
Now, if you’re in a business that drops 50 percent every 18 months, what do you do?
Well, the natural thing to do in electronics is to add more features, so that, let’s say, in 18 months from now, you will still buy the cell phone, or the camera, or the laptop for more or less the same price, maybe even a little bit more. But what it’ll have, it’ll have a lot more features.
Now, that’s OK to a point. And what’s happened is that our laptops today are like SUVs. Namely, you’re using 95 percent of the energy to move the car, and not the person. And that’s what’s happened with laptops.
Ninety-five percent of the computation, if you will, is used to basically support the laptop.
And so, if we could revisit that, make it thin again, reduce a lot of the, for the lack of a better word, I’ll call it ”fat” that is in the system, add some features that are kid-centric and are sympathetic to being in a remote, rural place without electricity, a lot of sun, and so on.
And then, build an organization that’s a non-profit for a very specific reason, that we have no distribution, sales or marketing costs, let alone profit, which immediately cuts 50 percent of the price out, because that’s a very, very big piece of the cost of electronics.
And then go in as a humanitarian organization to basically provide to children the opportunity to be connected, to learn and, very importantly, to collaborate with each other.
LAMB: Let’s go back just briefly. I know you’ve told this story many times, but you were born where?
NEGROPONTE: I was born in New York City.
LAMB: The brother of John Negroponte.
NEGROPONTE: John is my older brother, yes.
LAMB: How many siblings in the family?
NEGROPONTE: We’re four brothers.
LAMB: And you went to school for a long time at MIT. When did you start there?
NEGROPONTE: I went to MIT in 1961 as a freshman, and never left.
LAMB: And you got a bachelor’s and a master’s and a Ph.D.?
NEGROPONTE: Well, I studied architecture, and there was a first and second professional degree. They didn’t have Ph.D.s in architecture. And since then, I’ve gotten a number of honorary ones, which people, I guess use as an excuse to use the word ”doctor.”
LAMB: So, when did you create the Media Lab, and what is it?
NEGROPONTE: The Media Lab was born in the late 1990s at MIT. I did it at a time a man named Jerry Wiesner was president of MIT. And Jerry was Jack Kennedy’s science advisor. And he himself was interested in the arts, but was also very electronic and computational in his science.
And Jerry and I just worked ourselves into a little frenzy, if you will, about building a unique place that would take the arts and take science, and invent things, where the inventors and the creative users were in the same place.
Let me take, by analogy, television. It was invented by engineers, and then used by people afterwards. Whereas photography was invented by photographers. They used it and invented it more simultaneously.
And we thought, maybe the future of computers could be more like photography, and that we would have people who were from music, from journalism, from anthropology, from physics, whatever, be part of an interdisciplinary group, which was very small, very, as I said, interdisciplinary. And then grew, basically, 50 percent per year for the next 15 years into one of MIT’s largest laboratories.
LAMB: You say in your book, that was a bestseller back in the mid-’90s, ”I’m dyslexic.”
NEGROPONTE: I am, indeed.
LAMB: What does that mean?
NEGROPONTE: Well, it means I struggle to read. I faked it as a kid. I was pretty good at memorizing things. I still am a terrible speller and transpose numbers and letters all the time. And I have a son who inherited that, and he struggled with the same thing and has done very well through perseverance.
And many people who are dyslexic are also different kinds of thinkers. I mean, Norbert Wiener was dyslexic. A lot of scientists have this sort of way of learning, which requires doing it differently than most people.
LAMB: So, when you pick up a book and look at it, how does it look different to you?
NEGROPONTE: Well, dyslexia comes in many flavors. So, I almost say that mine is mild. I enjoy reading these days, but I read slower than most people.
There are some forms of dyslexia where reading is really a struggle, and you avoid it as much as possible.
LAMB: How do you learn, then?
NEGROPONTE: Well, you learn by listening. You learn by doing. You learn by making.
And a lot of people who do their learning by doing become, to some degree, more creative. They’re accustomed to making things.
And you ask a question, and some person says, well, I’ll go read about it, or I’ll study it. And another person says, well, let’s build it and try it. Let’s see if it’ll work. And it’s a much more, if you will, constructionist approach to learning.
LAMB: So, the Media Lab is physically located where? How big an organization is it? How many people are there? How many professors?
NEGROPONTE: Well, the Media Lab is a little bit like Madrid is to Spain. It’s in the center of the MIT campus. It was a building designed by I.M. Pei, just after he finished the National Gallery here, and just before he did the Louvre in Paris.
So, I would joke with him that we were the sorbet in this big meal that he had.
And it started off, as I said, small, and grew to its peak of about 500 people, of which 100 were employees in the sense of part of the staff or the faculty, of which about 30, maybe 35, were faculty.
LAMB: Where does the money come from to support it.
NEGROPONTE: Money traditionally came from industry. This was a twist that was considered quite innovative in the late ’70s, because 85, even 90 percent of research at MIT was funded by government.
And the Media Lab became, if you will, a model for change, because we were, if you will, 95 percent funded by industry. And we went to companies around the world that we thought were in need of looking at the world differently, particularly media companies.
Remember, this was in the early ’80s. And we were all using what is today called the Internet. We were all using personal computers.
But it just hadn’t registered, if you will, how big on the Richter scale of change this was going to be.
And so, we had a lot of media companies, a lot of consumer electronics companies. And at its peak, it had about 120 or 130 companies participating at any one time.
LAMB: How about now?
NEGROPONTE: I’ve been gone for a couple of years. I think it’s less companies, but more government. So the budget’s about the same, but the balance is different.
Probably less foreign companies. We always had about one-third of our money coming from offshore. It may be less now. I haven’t followed.
But it peaked at about $42 million a year of activity, and it probably has leveled off to 30-something.
LAMB: Now, I read that students get a free ride, if they get selected.
NEGROPONTE: Again, this was my policy. I can’t say whether the current regime follows it.
But it’s simply that, if a student was there, I wanted all students to be on full tuition, full salary, all on the same basis, even if their name was Rockefeller. They’d come in and everybody was equal.
And they were more apprentices, and that the – I thought of the Media Lab like a 16th century atelier, where the grand master is working on a painting, and all of the students are, if you will, filling in the colors and working on the painting, as well.
And that you learned by doing. You learn by working with somebody who is really doing their masterpiece, their work.
And our faculty are very different than most others. If you ask somebody, when was the last time you saw your Ph.D. advisor, typically the answer will be, well, two weeks ago for 40 minutes.
The Media Lab, if you ask a student when they last saw their thesis advisor, they’ll look and they’ll say, well, 20 minutes ago. Because the faculty do their work there. It’s a laboratory, or it’s a studio.
They come, they spend their time there and the students work with them. And the learning is by doing and by being really quite outrageous.
Now, the truth is, the undergraduates are by far the best. They don’t know the word ”impossible.” They do things that are a consequence of being naive and young.
Graduate students are a little bit more sort of set in their ways. And, of course the faculty – sometimes you really need to push them.
But it’s still this atelier environment. And I think that came from my own education in architecture more than the fact that we were teaching computer science, and we were trying to break technical barriers in television technology, in holography, in very technical fields, but doing it in a way that was quite different than anybody had done before.
LAMB: So, how many total years did you spend with the lab?
NEGROPONTE: It was founded in the late ’70s. We opened our doors for business in ’84. We occupied and moved into the building in ’85.
And I was there until 2005. So, it’s a lot of years. I mean, it’s basically 20 years.
LAMB: How did you become the first investor in ”Wired” magazine?
NEGROPONTE: Well, that’s a cute story.
I had known the publisher of ”Wired,” Louis Rossetto, from an interview in a bar in Amsterdam. He was the editor-in-chief of something called ”Electric Word,” a magazine that was in the late ’70s, maybe early ’80s.
And Louis and his girlfriend, Jane, came to the United States in the sort of early ’90s, to start something they called ”Wired.”
And since they knew me, they made contact with me. And they new a lot of media companies were involved. And I tried to help them.
And then we met once in California. In fact, I was with my son at the time at a meeting called TED, which was the technology and education and design.
And at the TED meeting, they were looking for investors. Maybe there was a little bravado on my part with my son. I said, ”Well, I’ll fund it.” And I did.
And I said, ”And by the way, to protect my investment, I’ll write the back page.”
So, that’s literally how it happened. And to be honest with you, is the greatest ride I ever took.
NEGROPONTE: Because ”Wired” became, in the first five years, a voice that nobody had heard before. It was on the president’s coffee table, the vice president’s coffee table.
Everybody had it. It was a new voice from the future. And people read it that way, saw it that way, and it had a lot of influence. And I think it changed a lot of people’s point of view, in that period of let me say 1992 to ’99, or ’97. Sort of before the digital revolution was even recognized as a revolution.
I think ”Wired” was very, very important.
LAMB: Are you still invested in it?
NEGROPONTE: No. We sold the magazine – it feels like 10 years ago, but it’s probably only eight – and then the site, which was the electronic side of it, a few years later.
I remained part of the magazine when Conde Nast bought it, for a little less than a year. And it’s since been a part of the Conde Nast family. And by the way, they’ve done a very good job. I buy it still today.
It’s become more like ”Vogue” magazine, where you can’t tell the difference between the ads and the content, because it’s no longer a digital revolution, it’s a digital culture, so they kind of blend. And I think they’ve done a terrific job.
LAMB: Go back to the One Laptop per Child organization. Who funds that?
NEGROPONTE: Well, I started, hoping that I could fund it in China, have it be based in China and have it be a Chinese project with Chinese technology. And that failed miserably.
I spent a lot of time trying to do that. And then finally, in January of 2005, I said to myself, I’m going to do it the way I know how. And that is to go to a few people and companies, just the way we started the Media Lab, and say, this is what we want to do. It’s a non-profit. It’s to help children. It’s to build a $100 laptop.
The first person I went to was Hector Ruiz, who is the CEO of AMD.
LAMB: What’s that?
NEGROPONTE: AMD is a company that makes integrated circuits – processors in particular; they compete with Intel – and they make a processor. And Hector Ruiz himself comes from Mexico and has achieved his success through education.
So, Hector took less than one hour to decide that he wanted to do this. And I said, ”Hector, I need a couple of million dollars from you, and I need you to do this.”
I made exactly the same call to Rupert Murdoch, and Rupert took five minutes to make the decision.
And then I called the founders of Google, and they took a little bit longer, because they had to talk amongst the three of them.
But within five days, those three people, or groups, had put in the initial money and said that we could announce it, to attract others. And so, after the three, another seven joined, and we raised about $30 million in a very short period of time, just to do the engineering.
So, that’s to make this – and most particularly the software that goes in here, and then to get the community to work on the software.
So, that’s a cost, but it’s not the running cost, because to put laptops in the hands of every child is about a $1 billion to $2 billion per year project. It’s not – that’s a much, much costlier enterprise.
And so, that’s how we funded it. We’ve been working for the past two years and just started mass production literally a few days before talking to you.
LAMB: Where is it being mass produced?
NEGROPONTE: It’s being mass produced outside of Shanghai. It’s being produced by a company called Quanta. Most people have never heard of Quanta, but they make about 50 percent of the world’s laptops.
Quanta was very important to us, because when we started this, people said, well, you know, they can’t make it. It’s a great idea, but they can’t do it.
And that either meant that we as academics couldn’t do it, or it meant that it’s not possible.
When Quanta stepped forward about a year-and-a-half ago and said, ”We’ll make it,” everybody stopped and were taken slightly aback. And so, whether it would be built now was no longer a question. Because, of course, Quanta, who makes 40 percent of the world’s laptops can make a laptop.
So now it was, when would it happen, how much would it really cost, and so on and so forth.
Quanta’s factory is outside of Shanghai. The parts are made by manufacturers, most of whom are in that vicinity. So it’s not as if they fly the parts in by air.
LAMB: Who owns Quanta, by the way?
NEGROPONTE: Quanta is a publicly traded company, founded by a man named Barry Lam. Barry is, I’m sure, the largest shareholder still today. I believe he’s the wealthiest person in Taiwan. But it is a publicly traded company.
And Quanta – its great asset is that it can work with Dell and Apple and HP, and it builds laptops for all of them, so they clearly are able to keep secrets and keep the designs separate, and really do it as a manufacturer.
LAMB: We’ve got some video that you’ve provided us that I guess was made in Brazil. And as we watch it, I want you to just talk about this computer. And why is it so inexpensive? And how much does it cost if you buy it outright?
First of all, you have to understand, we have the opportunity to build it from the bottom up. And these kids are using an engineering model that was built about six or eight months ago.
And they are in Porto Alegre, which is a town in southern Brazil, where the teacher, who is in charge of this, has a great deal of experience in constructionism – how children learn by doing. And so, it’s not just your ordinary school using it. It has a lot of intellectual capital that comes from the same, if you will, the same background that we come from.
We can make it inexpensive, because, as I said in the beginning, we’ve taken a lot of fat out of it. We are dealing with very large numbers, so we have the economies of scale.
And perhaps more importantly than anything is that we could, because we’re designing it from the bottom up, use very integrated components, use materials that were quite new – maybe hadn’t even been used before.
But again, this all comes from scale. And scale is very, very important.
Just to give you a sense of scale, our hope is that in they year 2008 sometime, maybe the second quarter, maybe the third quarter, that we can make a million of these per month. Today, the total world production of all of the manufacturers combined is five million per month.
So I’m sitting here telling you that, in a few months, we’ll be 20 percent of the world market.
Now, yes, it’s a low-cost laptop. And yes, our constituency is kids, and we’re a non-profit. And we can take all of the other things that may make this happen.
But it’s a very different proposition. And the most important thing for me to convey is, it’s not a laptop project. It’s an education project. And that is key, and I think people understand that.
LAMB: If you buy this, though, outright, what’s it cost?
NEGROPONTE: Now, we’ve made it available to Americans for $399, for just a short period, in the month of November. It ends on November 26th.
And what we do there is, we will send a laptop to you for $399, but most of your money is going to buy laptops for kids in other countries, so we call the program, ”give one, get one.” And a lot of people have been doing it.
You and I are talking after the first couple of days of this. And so, there’s been an enormous response.
And I think that this will allow us to now go to the poorest countries and the smallest countries, not just the bigger ones like Nigeria and Brazil and Thailand, which are big countries. They’re relatively rich. They’re not in the 50 poorest nations at all.
And they’re hard to deal with, because they’re also seen as big markets. And so, commercial interests are sometimes at odds with ours. And so it’s hard to get momentum.
When we go into Rwanda, or we go into Afghanistan, or we go into Haiti, we don’t find much competition. We don’t see people, you know, leaping into those as markets, because they’re very difficult and they’re not very big.
So, because of ”give one, get one,” we’ll have an inventory of laptops, where the laptop doesn’t cost $100 or $188, which is what our manufacturing cost is today, but it costs zero – at least to the end user.
And that’s a very, very different way of starting this.
And I liken it to an avalanche. If you want to start an avalanche, you don’t need much snow. And I look at ”give one, get one” as a way to have that avalanche trigger.
LAMB: What’s the capacity?
NEGROPONTE: The capacity of this is that each one, each laptop has one gigabyte of Flash memory. But what’s very important, when you put up these little ears – and we ask the kids to leave it – you know, when they set it on the table at night, we ask them to leave the ears up, because even though this machine is turned off, its routing messages.
So, if you’re a kid and I’m a kid, but we’re separated by one mile, if this is in between us, it takes the message and relays it.
So, a network of these become, if you will, what we call a mesh. And then all you need to do is connect one point on that network to the Internet, and everybody is connected.
And if you bicycle home a couple of miles, or walk a few miles away where you’re out of reach, you can nail something not too much bigger than this coffee cup onto a tree, that then boosts the signal to your little hamlet.
And the power of it is such that, when I’m using my laptop, even if I want to use more than what’s here, I can use my neighbor’s memory.
So, even though this may only have a gigabyte, if there are 20 kids in a classroom, they’ve got 20 gigabytes.
We can store the entire Wikipedia on laptops where you have the As and I have the Bs and someone else has the Cs. And we can, because there is very, very broad band connection between the laptops, because of these cute antenna, that actually are very powerful.
LAMB: So, I know you’ve got a camera in there.
LAMB: How can you afford to put a camera in there for that price?
NEGROPONTE: Camera – the actual camera in here costs only about a dollar, literally. You know, maybe with the plastic lens it’s $1.10, or something. It’s quite inexpensive and it’s a quite good camera.
We’ve made the resolution of the camera be the resolution of the screen, which is, by the way, higher than yours and mine. It’s a pretty good resolution.
And you can put – again, we put our energy and our money where we thought the kids would want to spend their time.
So, for example, there’s an audio processor in here that’s astonishing in its power. That if you looked at it technically you would say, ”Wow, this is really for a sound studio in Los Angeles. This isn’t for a kid in the middle of Africa.”
But the sound processing in here is – if you plug in headsets – now, admittedly, our kids don’t have headsets, but they can make very, very good, professional quality music and ship it out and share it. This is not tinny stuff. This is better than iPod quality music. It’s really, really a very good processor.
So, we put the little bit of effort and money we could into things like the interface, video, audio and things like that, and the collaboration more than anything. And that was key, because we had that opportunity. Because, as I said, we’re coming from the bottom up.
LAMB: Why wouldn’t I, though – I use the Internet mostly for news and information – why wouldn’t I just buy one of these and use it?
NEGROPONTE: To be honest, you would. And I use this. A lot of people who work at One Laptop per Child travel with just this.
It’s a little bit of a hazard right now, because you use it in an airport, and everybody comes – you know, asks you what it is. You can’t get any work done.
So, if you were to take this on your next trip, I can assure you that in the public space, you would get nothing done, because you just open it up, and people come from the next table and they say, oh, it’s the $100 laptop.
When I put this through the x-ray machine to go through security, 50 percent of the time, the people running the x-ray machine recognize it and say, ”Oh, it’s the $100 laptop.”
It’s gotten a lot of publicity. People know it a little bit by its look. So, you’re going to get nothing done. But if you use it in the privacy of yourself, it’s fine.
The only drawback is, the keyboard is a little smaller. But you get used to it pretty quickly.
LAMB: What size is the screen?
NEGROPONTE: The screen is 7.5 inches in diagonal. And it converts. It folds up into a little games machines, with the sort of typical games buttons that kids have.
So, for example, you can play Sin City. You can play Tetris, is something that people like to play. And then I can fire up Tetris, and we can sit here playing it.
LAMB: How much does it weigh?
NEGROPONTE: It weighs about three pounds, a little – three pounds and a fraction. Perhaps a little heavy. It probably should be lighter.
We put a lot of battery. You can use this in two modes. It can either transmit light, which is what we’re all accustomed to, or it can reflect light, which won’t work in this room too well. But I can go outdoors and put it in reflection mode.
And if I use this as an electronic book, I’m reading a book, and I use it in reflection mode, the battery lasts 23 hours, which is important, because it means you can do an awful lot of reading without any cranking, or without any plugging in.
LAMB: Now, what if you just use it and you interface with the Internet, how long does the battery last?
NEGROPONTE: Probably about five to eight hours, depending on what you’re doing. If you’re using something that’s very compute intensive, it’ll last less.
If you’re just browsing, and then you have an image and you’re reading it, and then you browse, and then you click and then you – it’ll go up to eight or 10 hours.
LAMB: Now, when you crank it, how much juice can you get into your battery?
NEGROPONTE: We think of the crank in terms of a ratio. How many minutes of cranking do you need to get how many minutes of use? And one-to-10 is the ratio that we think is the worst case. If you have to crank, you know, worse than one in 10, it’s not too good.
And all I mean by that is, one minute of cranking gives you 10 minutes of use. And that’s the crank.
LAMB: I assume you can use AC?
NEGROPONTE: And you can use AC, yes.
LAMB: Now, what about WiFi? Can you …
NEGROPONTE: Absolutely. This is WiFi.
LAMB: It is.
NEGROPONTE: And in fact, in the ”give one, get one” program, T-Mobile has added to the package, free WiFi connection for a year. So you can connect to the Internet free with this laptop for the next year, thanks to T-Mobile.
So, it’s not just the best deal in town in the sense that you’re giving a kid in Africa a laptop, but you’re also getting yourself connected. Or you can use any WiFi.
In fact, I’ve been in meetings where people have their laptops open, and nobody can get a signal except me. And that’s because, having these little steerable antenna, which takes them out of the plane of the screen, is far more powerful. It’s just the way antennas work.
And our laptops don’t have steerable antennas, but these do. And it gives you a very, very good WiFi connection. So, I could use it – in fact, I could even check and see if you have WiFi. You might even have WiFi in this room, and we could connect instantly.
LAMB: What’s this going to do to the $2,500 Sonys that they’re selling, the $1,500 Dell laptops? Put them out of business, or bring that price down?
NEGROPONTE: I think what it’s going to do for those companies is create a market. I’m not worried about those companies. You know, they are making perfectly fine product, and maybe they’ll have to learn how to make these products less obese and use the power differently.
But we’re not trying to disrupt a market, and we’re not trying to displace people. We are, in fact, creating a market for them.
But in the beginning, a lot of people will be buying this and using it in ways that we can’t imagine – adults, senior citizens. People will buy them to have in their kitchen. Because you can use – you can put this under water. You can drop it or you can – this is a perfect kitchen machine, OK, because …
LAMB: That can go under water?
NEGROPONTE: We can drop this and – we can’t put the screen in water at the moment, because there are some holes and so on. But you can submerge this into about one inch of water, and use it under water for as long as you want.
Or I can sit here and pour water on the keyboard and it wouldn’t make any difference. It would make more difference to your carpet and my pants than it would this.
LAMB: Is the screen color?
NEGROPONTE: The screen is full color, and it has a black-and-white mode that you can use, which gets three times the resolution. So when you use it in black-and-white mode, you’re not just eliminating color, you’re adding three times the resolution.
So, you can see, for instance, books and newspapers on this machine like you’ve never seen them before. So, there really is an invention in that.
LAMB: Can you watch videos?
NEGROPONTE: Absolutely, yes. I can show you Sesame Street in Urdu, for example. Of course you can. This is a very powerful video machine.
LAMB: Now, if somebody, as you get past the period of the give one and get one, and you want to just buy it outright, how do people go about doing that?
NEGROPONTE: Well, it’s not clear that we’ll be making – because again, we’re not a commercial entity, and our goal is not to sell laptops.
So, it’s unclear to me what will happen after this window, where we are making it available as a financing mechanism. So, we’re making it available to the American people, not so much because we think the American people should have one, but because they will help us finance it, and finance the kids in the developing world.
And one of the reasons I say that without hesitation is that, in the United States we spend $10,000 per year per child in primary education.
So, in that system, whether the laptop costs $188 or $300 or $425, isn’t a big deal, especially if you amortize it over five years and you spread the cost, and you do things, it’s just not.
But in a country like Bangladesh where they spend $20 a year, or in Nigeria where they spend $100 a year, or in Latin America where the average is $200 or $300 a year, then it makes a difference.
And that is the context for which we designed this.
LAMB: What if somebody watching says, I want to buy – oh, I don’t know – 500 of these for a grade school that’s – you know, they don’t have a lot of money at this grade school in a town. Do they get any benefit out of that?
NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, anybody who buys it in the $399 deal, $200 of that is tax deductible.
You could also go to this same Web sit, which is laptop.org, and buy 100, or buy 1,000, and there are, in each of those cases, there are breaks and advantages. And if somebody wants to buy 60 for their favorite school, they can go to the Web site and do that.
And there what we do is, we will send the 60 as fast as – you know, they get made to order. So, it’s not as if we keep inventory in Chicago.
They send 60 to, let’s say, their primary school. And then we end up with 40 that we can then send to Mali or Chad or Niger, or a country that’s amongst the 50 poorest.
LAMB: How do you decide where they go in the world?
NEGROPONTE: What we do is, we work very closely with our partner, the U.N., to deal with all the countries. So, through the United Nations, we deal with all the poorest countries, the landlocked countries and the island states.
And in each case, we try and get the country to leverage whatever laptops we give. So in the case of Rwanda, Haiti and Afghanistan, what we’re doing is, we are shipping – literally now, in December, January – 10,000 laptops free. But then, they’re also buying laptops.
And so, if the country is willing to buy some, it kind of now isn’t just give one, get one, but it’s sort of give two, get one. I mean, we sort of multiply it a bit. And most recently, we made that agreement with Mongolia.
So, we’re going sort of case-by-case, trying to get more and more momentum with this. I said landlocked countries and the 50 poorest nations.
And as it accelerates, that’s where I sort of use the avalanche example. We get this to sort of propagate out.
Now, the big countries – Brazil, Nigeria, Argentina – are also still working with us, but there are tenders out and there are bids out.
And the first country to put out a tender – which we, in fact, won and they will be getting the first machines – is Uruguay, which is sort of none of those. It’s not landlocked and it’s not amongst the 50 poorest nations. But it is, for us, a wonderful example, because they did a very rigorous technical evaluation.
And, in fact, when they made the specifications, they didn’t include things that were indigenous to this. Like they didn’t include the mesh network. They didn’t include the sunlight readable screen. They didn’t include low power. Because if they had, it would have looked as if the tender was kind of rigged for this.
So it was a pretty vanilla tender for a laptop and used in education. And we won it. That was very important.
It was important because other countries saw this. And then Peru saw that Uruguay had put out the tender and we won. And literally 24 hours later, the president of Peru announced that Peru would be doing a quarter of a million laptops over the next 12 months.
LAMB: A technical question. Is T-Mobile the only WiFi you can use on this?
NEGROPONTE: You can use any WiFi.
LAMB: Connect to any service …
NEGROPONTE: You can connect …
LAMB: … modem service?
NEGROPONTE: Absolutely any service.
LAMB: Is your book, by the way, ”Being Digital,” still available?
NEGROPONTE: If it is, I hope it’s in the history section of bookstores.
NEGROPONTE: Well, it was written in 1994, published in ’95. A lot has happened. It still sells. It’s in about 40 languages. And people still buy it, apparently.
LAMB: Here are six things you said would happen.
LAMB: That if you – you know, you predicted that there would be intellectual property abuse, invasion of privacy, digital vandalism, software piracy, data thievery and loss of jobs to automated systems.
NEGROPONTE: I’m generally a very optimistic person, so you had to read very carefully to find those that are indeed all there. But I think you could make a much longer list of the things that have happened in terms of the digital world …
LAMB: I didn’t mean it as a negative. I just …
NEGROPONTE: Yes, but I mean …
LAMB: I mean, you predicted those and they all happened.
NEGROPONTE: They all happened, yes.
LAMB: So, what didn’t happen that you thought would happen?
NEGROPONTE: Probably the thing that – and it’s technical, really – that didn’t happen that I thought would happen, would be a lot more voice recognition, a lot more of the sort of talking to machines the way I’m talking to you.
And the other thing that I didn’t anticipate, which is really on the negative side, is the complexity that would evolve. The fact that my laptop today is slower and less reliable than the laptop I had five years ago.
It takes forever to turn on, forever to turn off. It does things I don’t understand. It takes the processor away. I’m suddenly on a flight and don’t have a charger with me, very little battery. And then it’s doing stuff in the background which I can’t stop.
I mean, there’s just a complexity. I didn’t think it would get this out of control. Even with cell phones, though – everything has become just more complex than I had anticipated 12 years ago.
LAMB: Why did that happen, do you think?
NEGROPONTE: There are two things that happened. One of them is human nature. And that is that, when you write a computer program and you get it to work for the first time, it is perforce simple. You just wrote something and it’s like a sketch.
And then you start perfecting it and adding features and adding this. And I say, well, I’ll do this, and then I’ll do that. And then you have a little bit more time, and you do something else. And then suddenly we make an animation of a little dog pawing when it’s operating – and we do all these things.
And it becomes gratuitous. And there’s a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that happens, because we keep – you know, just human nature is to keep perfecting and adding a little bit here and there.
And in fact, we could stop some of that. If we paid computer programmers by the number of lines of code they remove, versus what they add, it would be a good help.
The second reason is what I mentioned in the beginning, is that you have to add features, because otherwise, what are you really selling the next time around? It’s got to be something that has more properties, more features to it.
And I don’t want to dismiss them all, but in general, I find that the latest release of a piece of software is distinctly worse than the previous one. Now, you can attribute some of that to age and say, ”Well, Nicholas, you don’t like change, and you’re not hip and cool anymore.”
Yes, but, you know, sometimes the change is a bit gratuitous, and you’ve got to relearn things, and people change the interface. Changing the interface – it’s like changing the flag of your nation. You can’t just change it overnight. But a lot of people are accustomed to that, and they get really annoyed when you change it.
And then when you change it, for goodness sake, change it dramatically. Don’t just make a little minor change, that what used to be on the right is now on the left, and what used to be dark blue is light blue, and you make these little changes. At least if you’re going to change it, change it and, you know, it’s different.
LAMB: I read that you really don’t read a newspaper every day. This is probably an old interview. But that you read the front page of the ”Wall Street Journal,” and that’s where you got your basic news.
And then I also read that, aren’t you on the Special Committee?
NEGROPONTE: Yes, I am.
LAMB: Explain that.
NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, the Special Committee hasn’t met yet, so what I’m telling you is what I read and hear, and is not the consequence of the committee having put any structure or substance together yet.
But it evolved because, when Rupert Murdoch was buying the ”Wall Street Journal,” there was editorial concern. And finally, the family said, well, one way of solving this is to have a committee to whom the journalistic side of the house could, if you will, go and – I don’t want to say plead their case, but it’s a little bit like a journalistic court – and could, in fact, act on behalf of the journalistic point of view.
And that committee was put into place, and I was asked to be a member, particularly because of my experience in the digital world.
LAMB: Jack Fuller from the ”Chicago Tribune” and Lou Boccardi from the Associated Press. And the late Jennifer Dunn was on there.
NEGROPONTE: She was on it, and I unfortunately never met.
LAMB: I think I missed somebody that was on that committee.
LAMB: Tom Bray.
LAMB: A journalist by training.
What do you think, though, at this stage in the evolution of information? Are you talking about – the main thing with this is education.
And a lot of people think that newspapers aren’t going to be around. And you’ve been involved from the very beginning of all the ones and zeros of the digital world. And now here you are on this Special Committee.
Will there be newspapers, from what you know?
NEGROPONTE: In English, the fact that the word paper is in the name newspaper, is quite astonishing. That doesn’t happen in other languages. People don’t have the word ”paper” embedded in it.
And what’s going to go away for sure, without question – OK, we can argue whether it’s 10 years or 15 – is paper. Paper is not a medium we can continue to use to transmit text. Putting text on paper is not sustainable.
But words are not going to disappear. And the text form of words is not going to disappear. It’s – in fact, using text is the most efficient way to transmit words, both computationally, and, in fact, to visually consume them.
You can scan, you can browse, you can read the headlines. Some people are speed readers. It’s a lot better than audio. It’s a lot better than other things.
So, text and words are not going to go away.
The production of words – and I mean literally using the alphabet, not just spoken words – is really going to continue and, in fact, increase.
In fact, today, kids use words written more than spoken. And a lot of texting goes on. And we all sort of joke about it, and we say, well, that’s not even English, and so on and so forth. But it’s text, nonetheless.
And whether you do it from a small screen, or you do it from a medium-sized one like this, or you do it from a large one, we’re going to see text live on and, in fact, even assume a greater role.
LAMB: I know you’re not involved in this, but Rupert Murdoch in the last couple of days said that he was going to provide the Internet service free, instead of now they charge $79 a year. And they have very successful – they have close to a million people that subscribe to it.
What’s your thinking there? Is that smart?
NEGROPONTE: Well, I think it’s very smart. And I’d like to think I even helped influence it.
We always want to have people have access to this kind of information. And free just increases your access.
Google is free. Television, when you and I grew up, was free. What it is, the economic model behind it, is running in parallel, whether it’s advertising based, whether it’s some other basis, that the free access to it is really important.
And Rupert’s announcement is just another step in that direction.
LAMB: I can’t let this hour go by without talking about your brother. In this way – I mean, here you are. I don’t know what the lesson is here, but here’s your brother who was involved deeply in the intelligence world, and you’re over here with this device that allows us to get a lot of information and move it around.
Do you two ever talk about this business?
NEGROPONTE: We talk a lot. We’re very close. We spend a lot of time together.
I point out that we’re both in the intelligence business, OK.
LAMB: What’s the impact, from what you see, on the future of intelligence gathering, or on government or on peace? I know you even wrote about that.
NEGROPONTE: Well, I think that education is so fundamental to all of those, that the impact indirectly from education is enormous.
The intelligence community has always been a large supporter of technology, and has been, in general, a way to move the boundaries of science. And the sort of questions and sort of technology, whether it’s in space, or whether it’s computational, has always been challenged and even disrupted by the requirements of the intelligence community.
None of us like the idea of gathering intelligence or snooping on each other, or so on. So, while it’s on the one hand distasteful, it also has been the source of a lot of innovation.
But jokingly I point out, you know, I’m in the intelligence business, too. It just happens to be human intelligence, and we’re trying to inoculate children against ignorance.
LAMB: Did you ever serve in government?
NEGROPONTE: Never served in government. I’ve served on government committees, but I’ve never been a civil servant.
LAMB: I read where, as many times as you submitted for a grant at the National Science Foundation, you never got one.
NEGROPONTE: Got one – one big one.
LAMB: You actually …
NEGROPONTE: Yes, I got one big one in the ’70s. It was very important to us.
But I was always apprehensive of the peer review system. And I still am to this day, because, if your peers are reviewing you, then first of all, it’s a little bit of a zero-sum gain. You’re kind of taking money that could be going to them. But also, they’re doing it from a point of view that is to some degree the establishment.
So, it suffers. The peer review system suffers from often dismissing things, because they don’t fit into what we’re currently doing. And it’s much harder to get the sort of unestablished – and I don’t mean established in a professional sense, but in terms of what is a wild idea.
And I’d prefer to use government money for taking very high risks at the early stage of science. And even if I have to make 10 bets, of which nine are, so to speak, failures, students are still learning, faculty are evolving. There’s all sorts of development anyway.
But then that one that does flourish into something – it becomes, if you will, the Internet, or the field of artificial intelligence, or one of the big ones that happened in the ’60s when government was funding in that way. There wasn’t the same peer review process. But individuals made personal bets.
LAMB: Should government, the American government buy these and distribute them in part of its foreign policy?
NEGROPONTE: The best thing the president could do in the last months of his term, is to give every child in Iraq and Afghanistan one of these laptops. Without question, it would be exactly the right thing to do.
LAMB: Have you suggested it to him?
NEGROPONTE: I haven’t suggested it to him directly. I certainly have mentioned it to Condoleezza Rice. And I don’t want to abuse, you know – dare should we say, get into nepotism and ask John to do it.
So, I haven’t very, very loudly done it, but have talked to the Department of Defense, have talked to a number of people in the State Department.
And I hope in the next few months we can do it. But it would have to be at a really large scale. And I think you’d literally use troops to deploy these, One Laptop per Child in Iraq and Afghanistan.
LAMB: Have you built in a protection so people don’t think you’re getting money out of this? In other words, do you own part of the company? Or …
NEGROPONTE: It’s a non-profit. I don’t even draw a salary. So, it’s – you know, people, I guess, could check my tax records or the tax record of the non-profit.
But I think it’s pretty clear. People who work, are at One Laptop per Child, they’re doing it out of love. It’s a very passionate organization.
And all of the professional services – legal, communications, banking, search, marketing – are all done by the best corporations in the world, that do it pro bono.
LAMB: With the very short time that we have, give the Web address again for somebody that wants to buy this computer, and also wants to help with distributing some around the world.
NEGROPONTE: It’s called laptopgiving – one word – .org. And if you want to find out about us, just laptop.org. And the two sites point to each other.
LAMB: Nick Negroponte, we’re out of time. Thank you very much.
NEGROPONTE: It went very fast.