April 3, 2009
Nicholas Negroponte

Ipek Cem's next guest will be digital visionary, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab and 'One Laptop per Child' champion Nicholas Negroponte. They will explore many topics including the state of our digitalized world, innovation regarding computers and cell phones. The interview will place special attention to the missions and accomplishments of the 'One Laptop Per Child' not-for-profit campaign that Negroponte leads.

Ipek Cem: My guest today is digital visionary Nicholas Negroponte. Welcome to Global Leaders


Nicholas Negroponte: Happy to be here.


Ipek Cem: Your campaign, the "One Laptop Per Child Campaign" is fascinating, and I know that since 2005 this has really become the work of your life. Can you tell us the status of this project?


Nicholas Negroponte: Sure. "One Laptop Per Child" is both a movement and an organisation. The organisation, which I started about 4 years ago, today has 700,000 laptops in the hands of children 6 – 12 years old in the remotest countries of the world. In fact 31 countries in 19 languages, but it's countries like Afghanistan, and Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia. It's very very poor and remote children. There are another 800,000 that are in transit, are being manufactured, so we are at about 1.5 million laptops for children to use in some cases as their only means of education because school doesn't exist, or they may be little girls in Afghanistan who can't go to school, so they will use a connected laptop at home. So it's full range.


Ipek Cem: How does the connectivity work, because in terms of these remote areas, these impoverished areas that you are talking about, how do you connect to the internet? Is that an additional obstacle for this project?


Nicholas Negroponte: Connecting is always an additional effort. What happens is that these laptops which are very different, these have been designed specifically for this mission, these laptops connect to each other. So if you deliver let's say 100 laptops to a village, or a thousand laptops to a village, they are all connected to each other automatically. And when that happens, only one of those laptops has to be connected to the internet. So if you… in a very remote village you could put a satellite dish that **** laptop's connected, which then connects all the others. Even if that dish costs you let's say $300 a month, which is a very high number, to divide that by a thousand children is only 30 cents a month. So if a child can have unlimited connection to the internet for only 30 cents a month, then it starts to become reasonable economics.


Ipek Cem: I'm assuming that in many of these places your laptop, which is a simple laptop, you know by industry standards, becomes the most technologically advanced gadget in that village. What happens the among the adults? Are they interested to use it? Are they taking it away from the kids?


Nicholas Negroponte: What happens when the laptop arrives is that the role of the child in the village changes. The children become very much the agents of change. We do not see parents taking the laptops away from children to sell them, for example because there is no value in the market because there is no secondary market, and in fact these laptops have sufficient security that if a laptop is stolen it is turned into a brick. It is not a usable laptop. The parents do something very different. The parents often ask their children to teach them, and we find many examples of where parents are illiterate are learning to read and write from their 6, 7, 8 year old children. And the comment I get more often from parents is, "We really look forward to when our child goes to sleep, because then we can use the laptop". But they don't take it away from the child.


Ipek Cem: When you go to these different countries and when there is illiteracy – you just mentioned it is sometimes the only vehicle for education for some of these kids – how does that work? How can an illiterate child make use of this laptop.


Nicholas Negroponte: You can use the laptop without knowing how to read and write. Very important. We have children who are 5 years of who do not know how to read and write, who use the laptop very comfortably, and very quickly. And what happens is it becomes a way for them to learn how to read and write. Something very interesting happened the way you and I learned to speak. We learned to speak because we could practice speaking as little children – one and a half years old, we started to realise if we could say something, we could get something, and then we could… speech formed very naturally. We didn't go to school to learn how to speak. It turns out reading and writing can happen that way too. You can actually get something by just a little bit… you just write a few things and see what happens, and then you learn a little bit more, and suddenly reading and writing evolves the way speaking did. And we see children – I'll give you a specific example – in Cambodia, where after one month children who could not read and write are suddenly sending messages to other children in English. Now, it's not the King's English, but it's words, and it's strings of words, and it's got nouns and verbs in it, and it's you know… gets better and better because there is a reward in their investment in learning how to read and write just a little bit.


Ipek Cem: That's very exciting. One of the questions I had is the language issue, because in… sometimes there are different scripts, there are different language, how do you customise the language for the specific country that the laptop is designated for?


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, what we do is we guarantee that it will be in the local language, plus English. So the local language will be the primary language on the keyboard, and then in the corners of the keys will be the Latin alphabet for English, because everybody wants their children to learn English, as well. So we localise it, at the moment in 19 languages, and we will do more and more. Now, these are languages that don't have normal market reasons to exist. So for example, when we do Dhabi, and Pashto, in Pakistan, or we do Amharic in Ethiopia, these are languages that didn't really have keyboards, because there was no commercial value in having them. Now they do. And even in Mongolia, where I was this summer, we find that cell phones are in English, not Mongolian, because there is again no real market reason to put it and the Mongolians just learn the English symbols when they use their cell phones. We do the opposite. We go in with the local language.


Ipek Cem: when you started out, I believe you had more scale in mind in terms of the number of years, and the number of users you would reach by a certain number of years, and now we know in the market there are net books, smaller laptops connecting to the internet. Yours is a not for profit endeavour, I know the difference between these and the commercial models, but how do you deal with that?


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, I had anticipated that we would do 3 – 5 million laptops in the first year. Instead we have done 1.5 million. Now, that's at one level disappointing, at another it's a pretty incredible number, given how, you know, we did zero the year before. But more important is that the concept of One Laptop Per Child is now widely accepted.


Ipek Cem: I am guessing that for these kinds of projects to take place, Governments have to play a role, especially in all these countries that you are mentioning. So would Governments be your main counterpart in getting these projects going?


Nicholas Negroponte: Our counterpart is always Government. Has always been Government. And we use a very simple technique of talking first with the Head of State, because if the Head of State wants to do it, then it will be done. We don't start from the bottom up trying to get either a bureaucracy or a teachers' union, or for that matter even a minister. We look to the Head of State for the leadership, because we want to do the whole country. So in the case of Uruguay, Peru, and Rwanda, which are three very different cases, the Head of State made it his legacy. In the case of Uruguay the President has said to the people that he wants to be remembered in history for doing One Laptop Per Child. And what's happened is that every child in Uruguay has, or will soon have, a laptop. So if you visit Uruguay today, you will see every child walking down the street has a little laptop in his hand, or her hand.


Ipek Cem: Incredible.


Nicholas Negroponte: And it is incredible when what it has done is it has completely changed the country. Now, there are only 450,000 children in that country, but all 450,000 have a laptop. In Peru, President Garcia is going to do the same thing for 2.2 million children. And President Kagame in Rwanda will do the same thing for another 2.3 or 2.4 million children in his country. So that's the way we have approached it, because we think every child should have one, and we do it through the Head of State.


Ipek Cem: When you look at a country like Turkey, of course we are not the same lack of level of development as some of the countries you are mentioning, but we are still a developing nation and we still have poverty in our nation. A profile like Turkey, would that work for your programme?


Nicholas Negroponte: Turkey would work perfectly, actually, because Turkey has not only a developing aspect to it, but it also has a very advanced social fabric, and an advanced technical interest. So Turkey would be very much like Brazil, or Uruguay, or Thailand where the country is not in poverty, but is developing nonetheless. So, yes, turkey would be excellent.


Ipek Cem: And I know that you are just back from Iraq. Is there interest in Iraq for this type of computerisation, let's call it?


Nicholas Negroponte: Actually, I am heading to Iraq, so I don't have… I am going in a few minutes… so I don't have an answer, but Iraq is… Iraq and Afghanistan are two countries that interest us very much. Iraq is a potentially very big opportunity, partly because they have their own oil money now, and the country really needs something for education, because you just can't train enough teachers and build enough schools. Afghanistan, the money really has to come from outside. And Afghanistan is an even harder problem, because as many as 25% of the teachers in Afghanistan are illiterate. The numbers are astonishing. 75% of the girls don't go to school. 50% of the children don't go to school, and 25% of the teachers are only one grade ahead of the teacher, of the students in which they teach the class. So if they are teaching a 4th grade class, as many as 25% of those teachers have only been to 5th grade. So you need to improve that whole system, and that's going to take such a long time. What the laptop does is it leverages the child. It actually bring the child – herself or himself – into the equation much, much sooner.


Ipek Cem: It seems to me that the child, in a sense, becomes the star. What happens to a child in those conditions who is all of a sudden given a gift, a laptop, what happens to that child psychologically? Have you had opportunity to view some of the early users and see what kind of a difference it has made?


Nicholas Negroponte: Yes. It makes an enormous difference. The difference it makes is more about self-esteem, and the self-esteem rises enormously, and I know many parents who – now we are talking about the developed world – parents whose children help them use their cell phone, help them use their laptop. We all ask our children, even the most technical among us. and what that does is it changes the parent-child relationship. Namely my relationship with my child is different than my relationship with my parents partly because I am depending on the child, I am asking questions. The child's self-esteem rises. It doesn't destroy the parent-child relationship, in fact it makes it better. It makes it different, but it makes it better. And we think the same thing will happen in the teacher-child relationship. And we find very often when we go in they will say to us, "Oh. The teachers' unions won't like this. The teachers are going to be against it. The teachers don't to lose power. The teachers don't want the child to know something they don't know". None of that's true. What you have to do is prepare the teachers enough to have self-confidence. But then the people who find this the most exciting are the teachers. We have examples of teachers – one teacher I met in Uruguay had been teaching for 30 years, and she heard the laptops were coming. So she went to the social security office and she asked for early retirement. And they said "Come back in a month and we'll give you early retirement". During the month, the laptops arrived at the school, so she helped the kids unpack them, and within 2 days she went back to the social security office and said, "I'd like late retirement", because she saw what it really did to the energy of the classroom, the spirit of the students, what they started to do in their work and their homework, the Parent involvement, the drop in discipline problems: all the things that accompany the laptop when it is introduced at a large scale, in school.


Ipek Cem: These are in fact very cute gadgets. They seem to have these ears, and they are colourful. How do the kids react with them? Are they very rough with them? Are they.


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, it doesn't matter how rough, because they have been designed to be really bullet-proof. You can actually, I will throw one.


Ipek Cem: No!


Nicholas Negroponte: You can actually throw them, and they are really indestructible, but they are also. Since it's children, they convert into games machines, you can see you can do all sorts. You can read it in sunlight, as well. So there are a lot of features to this that make it better than your laptop, and my laptop.


Ipek Cem: This is the XO. This is the first version, right?


Nicholas Negroponte: Yes.


Ipek Cem: And it's around, in the market, not in the market, but it's priced as around $170.


Nicholas Negroponte: It's in the $170 range.


Ipek Cem: And you're looking to draw the price down.


Nicholas Negroponte: We are looking to drive it down well below $100. Will that be another version, with limited capacity, or having the same capacity as this one? It will. What we'll do is keep capacity the same, and we will drop the price. What typically happens is that the price of electronics drops about 50% every 18 months, and so what people do is add features to keep a stable price. We are going to keep a feature set stable, and let the price drop.


Ipek Cem: Yeah. Talking about electronics and the digital world… You are one of the pioneers of the digital world, and your book in 1995, "Being digital", was like a bible for the new digital age. Looking back you have founded, and have been Chairman of the MIT Media Lab, one of the biggest innovation centres in the world. How do you think the information age, the digital age, is progressing?


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, the digital age is progressing very rapidly. (Yes) And the speed isn't so much the speed of invention. It's not so much like we have an automobile that does 50 miles to the gallon, and now we have one that does 300 miles per gallon, and we'll soon have one that does 3000 miles per gallon. It's not that kind of progression. It's more the kind of ubiquity, that it spreads, and it is spreading not only to parts of the world like going with the laptop, it also spreads in the individual lives of people who now have, you know, tens, maybe hundreds actually, of computers at home. Some of which they know about, some of which are there they don't even know they're there because they are embedded in things. So computing in general has grown, and the digital world is part of everything. That rate of change has been really quite dramatic. The disappointment in the past 10 years, at least from my point of view is that the complexity is still far too great. Now children don't care about complecxity, it's in fact part of the challenge and it's sort of like a game. But for you and I everything is suddenly slightly unreliable, and you do something, and you think it's your fault, and you've pushed a button, and something happens, and it deletes… We all get frustrated because the complexity of the user interface, whether it's cell phones or laptops is just far too great and makes it, I have to say, unpleasant… we wake up in the morning and our machines that seemed to work perfectly well when we shut them off suddenly don't work, or they don't start up, or they take too long, or they crash, or something happens and that part is disappointing and has to get much better.


Ipek Cem: I am sure there is work being done on this, but you are right. We sometimes feel that the machines have more power than us, and if we touch something wrong it's going to explode. When you look… I had the chance to visit the MIT Media Lab in 2003, and I was talking with some people who were working then on some cell phone technologies, and this seems very, way over a normal person's head, let's say. What are some of the winning technologies that came out of MIT Media Lab that we today look at as a given, but maybe 10 years ago 15 years ago, they were just unknowns?


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, if you go back over the course of history, you will find many things that have been done at the Media Lab, as far back as the 1980s, the 1990s. In fact all of the digital video compression has its routes at the Media Lab, and things that we do today like jpeg and mpeg, and all of those things have their roots there. Perhaps the most recent, about the time you visited, concept that has made it into product, was electronic ink. I don't know if you saw it when you were there, but it's now in electronic books. Amazon makes one called the Kindle. Sony makes one… others will make. And it's something that's quite important because it is something that uses such little power that an electronic book, especially if it's reflective like a sheet of paper, like this one is, it changes the comfort, it changes the nature… Everybody thinks of a screen experience as something where this light bulb, like 100 Watt light bulb is illuminating, and it hurts your eyes if you read it for a long time. A reflective display medium is a very interesting change and it's catching on right now in a very large way.


Ipek Cem: In terms of cell phones and computers, it seems to us that the cell phones have really taken over some of the functionalities, some of the functionalities, of a laptop or a desktop computer, and we see more and more people spending more and more time with their cell phones. Do you anticipate that this is going to be more so, or less so? How do you see the cell phones developing?


Nicholas Negroponte: The cell phone is about connectivity. Being always connected. And since much of that time you are mobile, or you are going from one place to another it has to be with you in your pocket, in your hand, and thus very small. So the connectivity, which is extraordinary the way it has spread around the world and the way we can have it continuously for text and voice and images is, by definition, a very small device. Whereas the laptop experience, and the electronic book experience, are more a reading phenomenon. You don't want to read a book on your cell phone. So, it's not that cell phones are going to take over the reading experience, it's a parallel phenomenon. You are always going to have both of those things. And unfortunately what happens is people think of cell phones versus laptops, or versus electronic books, and it's really not. It's two phenomena that are very, very distinct, and they have to do with the way you read, the way your vision system works, the way your hands work, and you really… if you go back to just books, an atlas has a certain size, a novel has another size, a timetable can be smaller, but screen size and theme size are related, if you will.


Ipek Cem: We tend to look at digitalisation of data as a good thing. For example even in the public sphere in terms of e-government, you know, it saves lots of money, it eradicates mistakes etc. etc. But also it is a way of collecting information. We see collecting information about the public, in the case of some internet applications, even Facebook is being questioned, and challenged, about collecting information. So how to ethically use this media? How to govern the usage of this medium in a legal and ethical way.


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, the best way to guarantee that information will be used ethically and appropriately is to have it be open to the person who in the data. In other words, as long as I can always view my data, then I can ask to opt out. There are many things you can do. Now, there are always fringes, ones to do with security, ones that have to do with, sort of, the well-being of a group versus the individual, and those are always going to be disputed. They are always going to be part of a point of view, whether it's right or left, whether it's liberal or conservative, whether it's Christian or Muslim, whether it's part… In other words there is always going to be a grey area that will be discussed and debated for ever, and as long as it's debated that's good. And as long as people are sophisticated about, you know, data collection and understand when it's happening, then you can make decisions to participate or not.


Ipek Cem: In the world today, the weight of countries like China and India are increasing because they are becoming new consumers, huge markets. How do they impact technological innovation? Is there more customisation done within those countries for those markets? How does this impact innovation or production for those markets?


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, China and India are very different, but also have one big common denominator which is that they are each so large for them the domestic market and an export market are relatively similar, and they can look at their internal market and do things – the Chinese do this more than the Indians – that other countries could not do. Now otherwise they are very separate. I think India is slightly overrated in its technical innovation. It's a small number of people that at first looked at the export market and in fact weren't that innovative. The Indians had to leave India to be innovative, and then some of them are now coming back. So there's a change happening with the repatriation of Indians who left 10, 20, and 30 years ago. But in general innovation comes from a society that has gone through the steps of development. It is not clear that a developing nation can be creative, because in order to develop it needs more lock step obedience, and more discipline, and more synchrony. And once you are developed enough, you have space for contradiction and diversity which you didn't have before. Singapore is a perfect example. Lee Kuan Yew will tell you that today that he wants Singapore to be a creative nation, but in pulling it out of poverty there was no interest in creativity. It was all about discipline. China, the culture is much more disciplined, unlike India, and the culture has a single alphabet, at least. It has multiple languages, but a single alphabet, so there is some singularity in China that will allow it to accelerate, which is why it has today ten times the foreign investment, almost ten times the per capita income. You have more advanced technology in China than you do in India, but the two countries together are an important block. They represent almost 50% of the world's children, in just those two countries.


Ipek Cem: Incredible figure. I was wondering also about your entrepreneurial side, because we know that you have been, for example, a co-founder and investor in Wired magazine which has had cult following, and is still being published today. You were a columnist in it, a very followed columnist, for many years as well when you were heading also the MIT Media Lab. You have invested in other technology companies, I think with Skype, and some others. How do you… How does this side of you complement your research and philanthropic side?


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, when I was the Director of the Media Lab, which was for over 20 years, I was a venture capitalist outside, mostly in order to be involved with the stages between the idea, and being a big company. Because the Media Lab was funded by big companies, and everybody at the Media Lab had ideas. But the little stage of entrepreneurship and development in between where start up companies, and small companies emerged, was missing in my life, and that was the way I filled it. The truth is, never invest where I invest, because I just always lose money, and always did.


Ipek Cem: Good to know.


Nicholas Negroponte: And found it though very exciting. I invested in over 50 companies. Five zero. And, as I said, most of them lost money, but it was very educational, and it was a way of seeing a stage of development that was one that otherwise was not in my life.


Ipek Cem: It seems to me that by being so involved with the XO, and the One Laptop Per Child Campaign, you have really a vision or a goal for development, for poverty eradication. What can we realistically expect with this campaign, and other campaigns, to happen in poverty reduction in some of the remote areas of the world, because it is linked with so many other issues?


Nicholas Negroponte: Well, whatever big issues and big problems we look at, whether it's the environment, world peace, you know, elimination of poverty, the solution includes education. And the truth is there isn't a solution, there is always multiple solutions, and I cannot think of one that doesn't include an element of education, and I can think of some which are only education. So what we're focusing on is education at the very early ages, that is called primary education, because if you don't do that right and you don't get kids to continue to have the passion about learning – because it's all about passion – and kids will come in at first grade, and their eyes are wide open, and they are listening to you, and they're just like sponges, but then very often by the third and fourth grade they are looking down, they're kind of waiting to get out of the classroom. They've lost that passion. They didn't like what they found, and that's a shame. One of the important things about this project is we insist – in fact we won't work with the country if they don't let the child take it home, own the laptop. So bringing it home the child uses it for things that they feel passionate about: for music; for movies; for talking to other children; for all the things that are in their life, so that their life and school becomes seamless. And that's the key.


Ipek Cem: Thank you so much for this candid interview.


Nicholas Negroponte: Thank you.


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.