A cheap laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world. It's the kind of dream reminiscent of the dotcom fervor of the 1990s - and a personal goal of Nicholas Negroponte since the 1980s. But only recently has the funding been secured to move forward on his goal: a portable computer that can survive excessive dust and 130-degree days, recharge itself in villages with no power, and hook up to the Internet when the nearest server is hundreds of miles away. The cost? No more than $100.
"What actually happened was I got sufficiently irritated by people telling me it wasn't possible," says Mr. Negroponte, chairman and cofounder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here in Cambridge. "I'm a firm believer that half of the solution comes from sheer resolve."
As fraught with challenge as it is full of potential, say experts, Negroponte's idea has been gaining momentum since he announced the initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. If successful, the project would give millions of students in developing countries a springboard to leapfrog the gap in skills, knowledge, and opportunities that separates them from their peers in developed countries.
In trips to China every six weeks or so, Negroponte is pushing for government officials there to publicly adopt a "one laptop per child" goal, to be reached by 2010, with laptops ready to sell by the end of 2006.
Crucial to making the project work is achieving the proper economy of scale, observers say. "This project depends on there being millions of orders when this project is first released," says Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "How do you get that many people to take that big a leap of faith?"
In a preliminary test of the idea, Negroponte and his wife, Elaine, have started a school in a rural Cambodian village, and distributed more than 50 laptops to the students there - using $100,000 of his own money to fund the pilot project. Negroponte's colleague at MIT, Seymour Papert, was an integral player in getting laptops to every seventh- and eighth-grader in Maine - a project now in its third year.
In Maine, the laptops have had a positive impact, says Alex Briasco-Brin, an eighth-grade teacher in Freeport, Maine. They have enabled him to handle a wider range of students and tailor lessons to individual needs, he adds. As a result, 20 percent of his eighth-graders this year are completing the honors algebra ninth-grade curriculum.
Dr. Papert and Negroponte envision a similar freedom to learn at one's own pace occurring in the developing world. They also see it as a way to learn English, connect with a larger world, mitigate the need for all-too-rare textbooks, and keep the passion in learning.
One of the key components of the plan is getting the laptops connected to the Internet. "The biggest problem with school is that kids learn at the expense of their own passions," says Negroponte. Up until a child enters school, he or she learns by discovery or by playing, and then teachers take over. Exploring knowledge and the world through the Internet can bring into schools that element of play - playing with ideas, he adds.
But access to cheap technology isn't enough, observers say.
"Can it be done? Yes, definitely," says Michael Best, a professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. "The question is, what's to be done and why.... We're better at designing technology than we are at understanding what technologies should be designed. So the challenge with creating a $100 useful Internet appliance is understanding how people will use it, how they will be empowered by it."
Not everyone shares Professor Best's conviction that it's possible to overcome the technological challenges - let alone financial, environmental, and cultural obstacles. Some of the biggest concerns, they say, are:
• Dust and heat: Dust can clog the fan that cools the power supply, causing meltdowns. Also, in some tropical regions, the computers would need to be able to withstand temperatures of 130 degrees or more.
• Power: Many rural areas lack a reliable power supply. Negroponte envisions using a hand crank or some other form of human-generated power to recharge computer batteries.
• Internet access: While all laptops within a school will be able to "talk" to each other automatically, getting them onto the Internet may be more problematic. One possibility: Best has helped develop reliable wireless access in rural India with a technology known as wi-fi.
• Maintenance: The laptops will need to be built in such a way that they can be repaired locally. That could lead to more tech-related jobs in those countries, but will also mean more training up front. Also, teachers need to be trained to handle the technology and use it effectively.
There are also cultural barriers to be overcome.
"Many cultures see the Internet as an arm of Western imperialism and as a bastion of pornography and consumerism," Best says. And in some areas, it's not culturally acceptable for women to use technology.
In short, Negroponte and his MIT colleagues have their work cut out for them, says Mr. Zuckerman. "I think it's really hard, but the hard things are the ones worth working on."