Negroponte’s $100 Computer for developing world

Negroponte has been talking about the $100 computer for revolutionizing education in poor countries — it seems that finally he has a prototype for $150.  See NYT article.

“I think it’s wonderful that the machines can be put in the hands of children and parents, and it will have an impact on their lives if they have access to electricity,� Larry Cuban, a Stanford University education professor, said in an interview. “However, if part of their rationale is that it will revolutionize education in various countries, I don’t think it will happen, and they are naïve and innocent about the reality of formal schooling.�

The debate is certain to enter a new phase when the machines go into full-scale production by Taiwan-based Quanta Computer, the world’s second-largest laptop maker. (The manufacturer, unlike the project itself, will make a profit.) Overnight, even though it will not be available to consumers, the laptop could become the best-selling portable computer in the world.

 In his two decades as director of the Media Laboratory, Mr. Negroponte often faced criticism because the institution’s impressive demonstrations of technology only occasionally led to commercial applications.

In this case, even if few leaders of poor countries are convinced and they buy these computers, it will be interesting to see how they are used.  Most countries buying these computers are not English speaking and have no exposure to the thinking that goes in the design of all the programs that are used in current computers.  How can such devices be used and their effectiveness is today a topic for discussion but if this project really takes off, we will have an example of what really happens.

In any case, it is an interesting experiment.  I am a big sceptic of such efforts to focus on cost to benefit poor people — I think what is needed is a redesign of these devices to make them language independent — not easy cosnidering current content and technology — and with more natural interfaces.  Cost is not as important as the functionality.  Hopefully, enough attention has been give to adding functionality for the ‘target market’ rather than just bringing down the cost.  Of course, one may also ask a question — is $150 really an inexpensive computer in 2008 — when it will be really available?

One thought on “Negroponte’s $100 Computer for developing world

  1. Bryant

    It was an interesting pleasure to hear representatives of AMD and OLPC speak during 2006. Different initiatives aimed at closing the global digital divide, providing new educational platforms for the worlds poorest children.

    Last week I was very fortunate to test one of only a few thousand OLPC laptops in production. Beside me sat a computer scientist, an electronic engineer, and a music production engineer. We explored the green and white device (now branded XO) I think, I felt its rubbery keys, lost and found myself in its user interface, played a game of musical concentration, and otherwise marveled at the modest but very real achievement. The engineers went back and forth about materials, architecture, we all kept coming back to the design constraints- invent a $100 device that could reliably be produced and utilized in third world conditions as a tool to accelerate the education of the worlds poorest children.

    The tough delicate green and white box that I held, swiveling its LCD screen from tablet to standard configuration might not impress me, my kids, or even my kids’ grandparents. However, changing the frame, adopting the viewpoint of a kid dwelling in the slums of Rio, how marvelous this limited tool could be. There are many unanswered questions about local training, infrastructure, methodology. This experiment is an iterative step in answering questions, discovering new questions, and finding a starting point to place the worlds forgotten and downtrodden onto the road of technology enabled education and innovation. OLPC is an iterative step towards a worthy and demanding goal. Institutional, political, cultural, and other social artifacts will be far more difficult to transcend that creating a box, applications, and a price point. God’s speed Mr. Negroponte. This box can be a point on a path to ideological and economic freedom for developed and developing countries alike.

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