Nicholas Negroponte, the visionary computer scientist who founded the One Laptop Per Child initiative, now says he wants to connect the “last billion” people on the planet.
He told the audience at TED on Monday in Vancouver that his next project would be to bring connectivity to rural people around the world who have so far been left behind in the Internet age.
Negroponte founded the One Laptop Per Child program, which raised about $1billion to distribute more than 2 million low-cost laptops to people in Uruguay, Peru, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and other poor countries.
The rural poor who would be the target of this new venture will be considerably harder to reach, Negroponte said. “Connecting the last billion is very different from the next billion. The next billion are low hanging fruit. The last billion are rural. These people are not poor in the same way. They may be primitive.” (See Liz Gannes’ account of the talk.)
The plan is based on using a geostationary satellite to provide a data uplink. Negroponte said he needs $2 billion to connect more than 100 million people. “That’s what we were spending in Afghanistan per week, so surely we can connect the last billion for that.” Negroponte offered few details about the project, citing his partners’ reluctance to make an announcement just yet.
Negroponte was speaking on the opening night of the 30th anniversary session of TED. He used the occasion to do a bit of crowing about the success of his own particular brand of futurism. He recalled that in the 60s and 70s, the notion that using computers to enhance the lives of ordinary people attracted ridicule. Papers were published about how stupid it was to use fingers to point at a touch screen—they were too clumsy, low resolution, and smudged the screen, and for forth. This was “sissy computer science,” said his critics. But Negroponte had believers in high places: MIT president Jerome Wiesner shared his vision, and in 1985 Negroponte and Wiesner opened the Media Lab.
Negroponte told a story of a Ph.D student at MIT who did a dissertation on a computer-program that used map and geo-location data to give instructions to drivers about which way to turn—much the way GPS navigation systems work now. The concept was dismissed by MIT officials, who cited legal concerns.
The TED visionary also cited astronomer Clifford Stoll’s 1995 essay in Newsweek ridiculing the idea that the Internet was about to challenge the status quo in teaching, government and media, which of course it did. “The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper,” Stoll wrote. (Ouch!)
“One of the things about age,” Negroponte said, “is that I can tell you with great confidence that I’ve been to the future.”
Negroponte ended by making a brash prediction: in 30 years, knowledge will be acquired by ingestion it–you’ll swallow a pill to learn English or the works of Shakespeare. Negroponte has been talking the idea up with his MIT colleagues and he insists it’s not as far fetched as it sounds.