The Information Revolution Inches Toward the World's Poorest People

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The Information Revolution Inches Toward the World

Nicholas Negroponte founded the MIT Media Laboratory in 1985. As its director, he conceived of an idea to get computers into the hands of the world’s poorest children and began designing a fully functional personal computer that would ultimately cost only $100.

Along with other faculty members at MIT, Negroponte founded One Laptop per Child, a non-profit organization, to design, manufacture, and distribute the computers. Today, according to a BBC News report,1 the project has a star-studded cast of supporters, including Advanced Micro Devices, Google, Red Hat, Marvell, Nortel, 3M, eBay, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

One of Negroponte’s co-founders was MIT professor Seymour Papert, who is acknowledged as the world’s foremost expert on how technology can help people learn. Papert first envisioned an inexpensive computer for children in the 1960s, long before PCs were even possible.

It is the passion of these two powerful minds, along with a great deal of high-powered help from academia and business, that is on the verge of bringing computers — and therefore knowledge — to the world’s least fortunate.

The centerpiece of this effort is a $100 laptop computer. It runs the Linux operating system and has a screen that can be read in sunlight. Its CPU runs at 500 megahertz, and it has 128 megabytes of RAM, plus 500 megabytes of flash memory instead of a hard disk drive.

Equipped with wireless mesh technology, each laptop will be able to communicate with its neighbors, creating a self-organizing local area network. This is particularly important where Internet connections are scarce, because once one machine connects, it can share that connection with all the others nearby.

A particularly novel feature of the laptop is the power scheme. It has a power module that can be charged by way of a hand crank or plugged in where electricity is available. The computer also functions as an e-book reader.

The laptops will initially be sold only to governments, which will then give them away to schools, which will, in turn, provide them to children, first in China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand. The developers are exploring the idea of creating a commercial version of the computer for sale to the general public.

The first units, manufactured by Quanta Computer in Taiwan, are scheduled to be shipped by early 2007. Quanta is the largest manufacturer of laptops in the world and is also a sponsor of One Laptop per Child.

Notably absent from sponsorship are Intel and Microsoft, whose executives have criticized the idea as impractical and unworkable...

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