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Laptops for the Majority

What’s the best way to move entire towns from poverty to the middle class? Buy each and every child in the community a $100 laptop computer, said MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte at a recent conference launching the IDB’s new Building Opportunity for the Majority initiative. Negroponte is also founder and chair of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organization that is working on developing these $100 laptops for low-income children around the world. 

“I’m not talking about the obese, feature-loaded machines that you see all over the place around here,” Negroponte clarified, “These are small, hand or foot-powered machines that have a cranks on them, so they can be used by people living in villages with no electricity.”

Indeed, the laptops are substantially different from the ones on the market today. In addition to their conspicuous cranks, the laptops are Linux-based machines with a dual display, one that’s full color and the second that’s black and white, but readable in sunlight. Rather than a hard disk, the laptops have three USB ports, as well as a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory. Also very important, they have wireless broadband that lets them work as a mesh network, so kids with a laptop can talk to their nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network.

Schools in several small villages in Cambodia, some of which are so remote that they don’t even have one road let alone running water or electricity, have already been working with Negroponte, who helped them get funding for a satellite dish and laptops for the students. “The first English word that kids in these villages learn is ‘Google,’” he said. “And the parents love the computers, too, because other than the occasional oil lamp, they are the only light sources in the house at night.”

Negroponte is quick to point out that OLPC is working to improve education in low-income parts of the world. “This is an education project, not a laptop project,” he said. “We are not commercializing the $100 laptop.”  He points to the wealth of information available on the Internet, to which kids without access to libraries and computers otherwise don’t have access.

OLPC has reached agreements with the heads of state of Argentina and Brazil, among several other countries, to launch its project in those countries in the first quarter of 2007, Negroponte indicated. He is currently in talks with the IDB regarding funding for a possible similar project for the entire region of Central America. 

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