Archive for October, 2008

“It is possible, in life, for everyone in the world to be wrong.”

October 28, 2008

…is what Nicholas Negroponte used to tell his son.  On October 13, I got to hear Nicholas speak for the MIT Club of Northern California about his latest project called One Laptop Per Child. As director of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas founded for-profit companies such as Wired Magazine and went against the advice of everyone. He made OLPC into a non-profit so that he could achieve clarity of purpose that would enable partnerships with organizations and governments around the world that a for-profit could not achieve:

To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.

By doing so, he found that they could attract the best industry talent to OLPC that they could never afford to pay for and OLPC is at 23 full-time-equivalents (FTEs). OLPC is launching these laptops to children in 31 countries around the world (like Rwanda, Mongolia, Haiti, Peru, Uraguay, India, …) with software and lessons in local languages. Prodction is at 100K laptops per month, and their eventual target market is to reach 500 million children worldwide who lack access to computers.

These computers have a mesh Wi-Fi network interface which is connected to a satellite hookup to the Internet where available — so in addition to Internet access, the laptops can automatically check-in to a central server in each country to track their status. If my memory serves me correct in some countries like Peru and Rwanda he reported 100% of the laptops check-in, in others they have not seen a large fraction of the laptops.

The principles driving their design and deployment of these laptops are:

  1. child ownership — low cost laptops designed with a child in mind
  2. low ages (6-14) — view children as a market
  3. saturation — access for everyone not just a few computers in each school
  4. connection — to the Internet
  5. free and open-source software

The idea for this started out when Negroponte and his colleagues at MIT recognized that computer programming was the closest we get to thinking about thinking, and when computers are out in the hands of children in developing countries they can learn something not possible with any other means. It brings the learning experience alive for children and teachers even in traditional classrooms.

Going forward, scaling is their biggest organizational challenge. Technically they need to increase the level of integration for the hundreds of components in their laptop to bring down cost. They do not see themselves as being the primary provider of content (lessons, applications) — the analogy he used was that Gutenberg didn’t write the books. He says they don’t compete with Microsoft/Intel in the same way that the UN World Food Program doesn’t compete with McDonalds.

This holiday season OLPC is introducing a Give-One-Get-One program to allow people to buy an OLPC laptop that pays for (donates) a laptop to a child in a developing country.  For their evential target of 500 million children, they need $50 billion (500 x $100 million) to saturate the world with laptops. I think coming up with that amount of cash will eventually become the limit to OLPC’s scaling unless they find some other source of funding through government or private foundations.

Nicholas started off his talk by telling a story on how he got funding for starting the MIT Media Lab that he said was never told before. The MIT president at the time was nearing the end of his term and decided he wanted to do research instead of moving up to Chairman of the MIT board. So Nicholas decided this was an opportunity to start a lab, but needed some funding to do so — where to start? He called up the chairman of NEC saying that others in France would invest provided the chairman invests. Once the chairman decided to invest, he said the same trick on his other investors and so he ended up with the funding he needed.

Like Nicholas, many great people I have admired have at one time or another said something like what Feynman did — “What do you care what other people think?”  Investors like Buffet, Soros, and Trump also say something similar about being contratian. Here is a link to a video from 1984 where Negroponte describes his visions for the future.

update on 5/2, see “Einstein the nobody” and  “The World As I See It”