Notes from Nicholas Negroponte Keynote at CES (1-9-08)

Thanks to my brother Curt who taught me to be inspired by visionaries, I always make an effort to hear the great thinkers and movers and shakers in person. It is so much different and better than hearing about it later. Nothing, for example, was better than attending the Facebook Platform launch event in May 2007, and even meeting Mark Zuckerberg afterwards in person. I’ve heard Marc Andreesen in person (2001), Bill Gates (2003ish), Larry Page (2005), Jerry Yang, Guy Kawasaki multiple times, Mary Meeker (2000), Bill Joy (2001), and many other influential VCs and entrepreneurs.

One of my former college students actually took me seriously when I suggested that he take all his tuition money for four years and invest it instead in meeting all of the industry’s thought leaders in person and learning from them directly when they speak, and also buying all their books and tapes, and that it would be a better use of money than sitting in the classroom for 4 years learning from academics. I’ll have to see if he is actually following through with this. He’s probably too busy working. For future entrepreneurs, this advice may actually be good. If you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a 4-year education, why not make the world your classroom and handpick all your instructors?

Anyway, the highlight of my CES trip was hearing Nicholas Negroponte discuss the purpose and progress of the One Laptop Per Child foundation, which he spun out of MIT Media labs about 3 years ago, I think, and which is now manufacturing laptops which are being sold by the millions into the developing world.

I have heard a lot of hearsay about the OLPC effort, mostly skepticism and disbelief in media reports, but Negroponte’s talk blew me away. I think this may be one of the most important initiatives in the modern era, with amazing consequences.

He gave credit to Seymour Papert for inspiring the idea. The overriding goal of the project is to leverage children to bring the world out of poverty. He has observed (as have nearly all parents that I know) how our current education system takes bright kindergarten and first-grade children whose faces are bright, and who are eager to learn, and by the fourth grade they are bored with school and not interesting in learning–they can’t wait for recess. I know there are magical schools and teachers that are good counter-examples, but as a whole, I think he is right.

I don’t believe just giving computers to kids will solve this problem, and neither does he. (He gives examples in the developing world where the only software on the computers is Word, Excel, and Powerpoint–which he thinks is ridiculous.) I think his approach is a holistic and open approach that will attract a lot of companies and individuals to the cause. Making OLPC a non-profit was the best move they ever made, he said, because heads of state know the real motive and it melts away resistance.

The most interesting thing I heard him say, and I’m going to be thinking about this for a very long time, is that the biggest failure of modern education in this country is not teaching kids computer programming at a young age, because that is a superb way to teach kids how to think and how to learn learning. Debugging a simple computer program that you wrote to draw a circle, will help a kid learn more about circleness than anything else.

I learned Basic programming when I was 12 or 13, when my Dad bought us an Apple II computer, with a cassette player as its memory. I remember my first “Hello, World” program that I learned from the Basic computer book he bought me. I remember all the Goto commands that I used to use. My magnum opus was a 2800 line Dungeons and Dragons program. I stopped programming a year or two later, but picked it up again in 1988 and wrote utilities for data preparation for about 6 more years.

Programming definitely changed my world.

Negroponte doesn’t understand why kids can’t all learn to write simple programs, so that they can learn learning. There was a programming language for kids called Logos developed in the 1960s. For some reason, we stopped teaching programming in this country and maybe around the world.

His lecture was very eye-opening and mind-expanding. There are a lot of disruptive technologies that were developed for the XO Laptop that the foundation is producing. The fact that a non-profit will be building tens of millions of laptops for the developing world is certainly disruptive. I bet one of the most popular web sites that these millions of kids will be accessing will be from another non-profit that created Wikipedia, in most languages. I like how these two projects will work together to provide knowledge for children worldwide.

Negroponte talks about how for-profit computer manufacturers are driven every year to bloat their machines with the latest of everything, so that they can keep the prices relatively high, rather than letting Moore’s law driving prices down by 50% per year. It took a non-profit with a goal to manufacture a $100 laptop to start causing some disruption. The prices still need to come down, but I see no reason to think that they won’t do it.

He highlighted a similar problem with auto manufacturers. Instead of a simple vehicle that focuses on transporting people from one place to another, now cars expend most of their fuel in transporting the vehicle itself. Reminds me of a contest I read about a few months ago where a (100hp souped up) 1921 Model T driven by a 70 year old man beat a Hummer H2 in an uphill race with its low horsepower, because the weight to power ratio was so much in favor of the Model T.

Makes you wonder if anyone will ever create a non-profit One Car Per Family foundation to manufacture a low-cost self-reparable vehicle that uses very little fuel to provide transportation for families in the developing world. I remember reading something about an Indian auto manufacturer that was aiming to build cars for a few thousand dollars.

There are so many industries ripe for the kind of disruption that will come when the developing world is the target of the innovation. I refer you to the excellent book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. If I recall, it describes the business opportunity for for-profit companies, not non-profits.

Here are my complete notes. Sorry they are so rough. (About half of Negroponte’s slides were just a few words in a list on a white background. Interesting way to do a powerpoint. I’ve tried to capture the content of those slides when I just list a few words/topics in a row.)

Nicholas Negroponte, author of “Being Digital”, board of Motorola, partner in VC firm, founder of MIT Labs, angel for more than 40 startups

Purpose of One Laptop Per Child:

The world doesn’t look great right now, not just wars, terrorism, etc–but the promise is a bit gloomy if you look at children as being the greatest resource. Pakistan and Nigeria–50% of the children don’t go to school. Education outlook is pretty bleak. If you look at any big problem: poverty, war, environment–part of the solution includes education. Sometimes it can be done with just education. I can’t think of anything that can be done without an element of education. After years of the MIT Lab and seeing how children learn, we decided to spin it out of the labs and focus on a particular kind of learning.

Goal: eliminating poverty

Means: Education
Learning learning

This gets misinterpreted as meaning that our PCs are anti-school….that is not right. In the world, first grade classes, eyes are wide open. There is in the room a kind of eagerness in their eyes; by the 4th or 5th grade, the kids will be excited because you come in, but in general the heads are down and kids are waiting for recess. A little bit of the passion is taken out. When we think kids in the developing world are dropping out of school to help the family financially, care for younger children, that’s part of the story, but school is actually boring and quite irrelevant.

Time machine
Hard fun vs drill and practice
Relevance
Programming
Leveraging children
Immunization against ignorance

If you take a time machine that can go back in time and look at something like medicine, 150 years back and look at operating theory, whatever doctor was performing that operation and bring them forward to today–that person wouldn’t recognize a single thing except the human body. If you play that same game and bring a teacher forward 150 years, in any country, that teacher could be a substitute teacher, they would recognize everything. Nothing has changed. What is changing is what kids are doing outside of school, not in. Maine state program was quite good 7 years ago, but kids there now say they have another real computer at home. The school supplied laptops are left in the dust.

Computers should be fun but hard work, like kids learning to program VCRs.

To me the biggest tragedy that has happened in education worldwide is that kids aren’t introduced to computer programming anymore. In 1968, logo computer language was developed for children. It wasn’t just simple, but it used basic elements that led kids to think about thinking. It’s not so you can be a computer programmer. The act of programming is the act of learning learning. Example: if you write a computer program to draw a circle, it turns out that child will understand circleness in a much deeper way than you and I did. We learned about circles in an abstract way. When you write a program that draws a circle, it will have bugs, so what does the child do. You debug the program.

What happened? In the 1970s, we found the children who engaged in that kind of programming transferred some of the concepts to their own learning. We saw this in spelling bees. If I got 8 of 10 words right I was happy. That was a B. The debuggers were fascinated by the two that they got wrong–they didn’t sweep them under the rug like I did. Their passion was for the two they got wrong.

In most developing countries school is two shifts, 7-12 (with few recesses). Average child spends 12-13 hours per week in the classroom. That is not many hours.

1982: first year that Seymore Pappart and I tried to bring computers to developing country schools. Steve Jobs gave us several hundred Apples. These kids from Dakar (Senegal?) had more computing power than the government.

My family helped set up a school in Cambodia in 1999. In 2001 my son was living in Italy and had girlfriend and startup problems, his name is Dmitri, I said if you can suffer the indignity of working for your father, why don’t you go to Cambodia and wire this school and I’ll send laptops. I bought laptops on eBay. The kids started taking these computers home. First english word was “google.” When they took the laptops home, the parents asked the kids not to open the laptop because they looked expensive and fragile–every one. Dmitri had notes for them to take home the next night–so the kids were able to open their laptops at home. The parents loved them because they were the brightest lights in the house (no electricity.) Parents started getting the kids to do things for them. The second year of this school–100% more children showed up for first grade. The kids told other kids how cool school was. Every child who started 7 years ago is continuing.

I think connectivity is coming in the developing world; but what bothered me is the laptop issues. Prices of electronics keep dropping, but if you keep handing savings to the consumer, then there won’t be a high price or margins. So manufacturers keep adding features, so the price can stay the same. Laptops, cell phones, etc. So an obesity occurs and turns most things into SUVs. Most of the gasoline is used to move the car, not the person. So we said, can we revisit this? 1) not be an SUV any more. 2) make something that is child-centric. What do kids do? They are not office workers.

If you see 6 and 7 year-olds in villages, they are learning Word, Excel and Powerpoint. They shouldn’t be learning particular programs, but learning to learn.

One Laptop Per Child
XO computer
A non-profit was our best decision we made. We were advised from day one not to be. We were told to make a lot of money and give it away. Or to follow the Paul Newman model. We said we needed to be a non-profit to keep the moral purpose absolutely clear. When I visit a head of state or minister of education, there is no question in that person’s mind what the project is about. We have no shareholders. It makes no difference if a country launches 1 or 2 million. We need numbers to get the price down; but when the volume is there, there is no reporting to shareholders. Kofi Annan announced this 26 months ago. We presented a strategy to get the bigger countries to launch it and the smalle rones to follow.

Everyone who saw the original model remembered only the pencil yellow crank. Today’s model has a crank, pedal, solar. 50% of the children in this world have no electricity at home or at school. If you are really serious about laptops and learning, you can’t use the power regimes.

4 things we really had to do:

1) <2 W
2) Dual mode, sunlight display
3) WiFi mesh network
4) Rugged

Why less than 2 watts? Your laptop is somewhere between 30 and 40 watts. How much power can a child’s upper body generate? At peak with major movements, you can generate 10 watts, but if you have a 10-1 ratio , 1 minute of cranking, 10 minutes of usage, it’s pretty good.

When I’m outdoors my laptop is impossible to use. Many of the kids we’re talking about go to school under a tree. Mary Lou, our CTO, invented some display technology that reads very well outdoors. I prefer to use it outdoors and in bright light, the resolution is higher.

People are fascinated by Facebook. Kids have to be able to have their own network, independent of the internet. If you open the laptop, they all make a network. Yes, the technologies are all somewhat disruptive, but the main thing is thinking about the kids and learning.

Rugged goes without saying.

Design matters. Two ways to make something inexpensive. Most common is to take 3 components: cheap labor, cheap components, cheap design and make a cheap laptop. Second approach is to take very advanced manufacturing, very large scale numbers, very cool design, and poor chemicals in one end and spew out ipods on the other end. We’ve gone in that direction.

You can’t have holes in this. USB and PCMCIA. Think of dust, sand, mud. There is one hole in it, to plug in the crank, or solar panel or AC adapter. When it converts into a games machine or electronic book, you are using it in a very different way. Games, ebooks is at the foothills. It is going to have an impact in several years that is quite large and quite unexplored. If folds up and become a laptop. Everyone smiles when the little ears go up. They are the wifi, network. By being steerable you get very good reception. I have been in meetings where 20 laptops come up, and no one gets a signal, but I do, because of the steerable ears.

Quanta is the manufacturer of the laptop–they make 40% of the world’s laptops. Having a partner like them is very important. 18 months ago people said they can’t do it, or it couldn’t be done. When Quanta raised hands and said we’ll build it, the questions went away completely.

3000 people; minus open source is 500; minus partners help is about 60.

Brightstar (mobile phone company) is doing the distribution/logistics from HQ in Florida.

Maintenance: how do you do this?
Design for it.
Laptop hospitals.
Wiki’s
Teacher preparation

The display is 50% of the parts cost of almost any laptop. In the case of the XO, you take out 4 screws and take out a bar of LED lights, that cost less than $1, and you have a new display.

The XO has to be a little bit more like an auto was designed 20 years ago. You could see things and make repairs. Today you have to hook it up to the computer to diagnose.

In Nigeria we developed idea of laptop hospitals run by kids. 95% of the maintenance and repair can be done by the kids themselves.

Most products have labels or messages–if you open this up, warranty no longer valid. I’d like to label ours: warranty not valid until such time as you open this up!

Most companies ask visitors to sign a non-disclosure agreement. We ask you to sign a disclosure agreement! We want to get the word out!

Wiki’s are people supporting each other. We released it in this country a few weeks ago; that was daring. It wasn’t designed for kids in this country. There is a growing community of wikis with kids supporting each other.

Our Chief Education office is in Argentina.

Teacher preparation not training. When someone says, who is going to train the teachers to train the children, I wonder what planet they are from, because there’s no a person in the room who doesn’t ask their child about their computer, cell phone, etc.

1,000 kids can share a satellite dish

Laptops are always connected

If a kid bicycles home or walks 3-4 miles, they will lose contact; so there are devices you can nail to a tree and boost the signal that cost $10.

Software on the laptop is designed with social networks in mind, it looks as children as friends, buddies.

12 keyboards in hand: english, arabic, thai, west african (nigeria), portugues, spanish, amharic (ethiopia), urdu, cyrillic, mongolian, devanagari, kazakh

6 more keyboards coming. Two weeks from design to being deployed.

Current launch countries: Uruguay was first, Peru, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Cambodia

Peru understands constructionism, is a student of it as well.

We launched Give One Get One as a financing mechanism. It ended Dec 31st. 162,000 laptops were sold.

The Intel fracas gets a lot of attention, but we have other great partners and the foundation will continue on.

Partners:
AMD, Marvell, Google, eBay, Nortel, Red Hat, Brightstar, News Corp, Citicorp, SES/Astra, two others

www.laptop.org

One of the fastest growing websites, the wikis in particular. The community growing around it is in multiple languages!!! The mishaps of last week have caused a lot of press to come out. If you look at the laptop or more importantly at education, more widely than just the classroom. It doesn’t mean you’re anti-classroom. If you ask how you leverage children, you can’t do it just in the class hours.

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4 Comments

  1. Great post Paul! My own son started writing html code when he was 11. Now he is 12 and builds his own affiliate websites and makes some money. He would really like to learn PHP, MySQL and other web languages to do more advanced projects. He has even show interest in writing facebook (or beebo apps). But I have not found a good tool for kids to learn programming. It seems like there should be some online tools that make this fun and interesting. Did they talk about where to find these types of resources online? Is XO working on something along these lines?

    I think these laptops are great. But there are also possible negatives. If all these laptops are used to view porn, download illegal files (how else are they going to get programs to run and music to listen to), and do other illegal activities (hacking, spam, scams etc) it will not make the world a better place. It seems that parents need to be trained to monitor their child’s activity on the laptop. I monitor my son’s every activity on his laptop. (He signed a contract and fully understands what he can and cant do on his laptop) It seems some type of parental control should be built into these machines.

  2. JM

    I bought two OLPC laptops. One for my 4 year old and one for my 2 year old. All I can say is that they are phenomenal machines and will live up to the promise that Negreponte’s foundation originally envisioned. I first became aware of this project throught the TED lectures on podcast (an excellent source of cutting edge thought leaders). Computers in the hands of children with adult supervision is truly a sea change in learning. Think opencourseware for preschoolers. If you want your child to read by their fourth birthday, you only need two websites:

    Letter recognition:
    http://www.sesameworkshop.org/sesamestreet/games/flash.php?contentId=9495524

    Then the graduated exercises at http://www.starfall.com

    This has been an unbelievable process to watch my children basically learn to read by playing on our laptops. Now they’ve got their own, with a webcam, Mesh networking, music programs and so much more.

    And the great thing about this OLPC initiative is that when I bought these laptops for my kids, two other children likely with little or no learning resources will have access to the same technology.

    Amazing.

  3. My first computer was a TI-99/4a that I received for Christmas when I was in 6th grade. I stayed up most of the next night teaching myself Basic. It changed my life. I found myself writing programs for Science Fair projects. Today I am a Software Architect.

    Have you checked out Kids Programming Language (KPL)?

    http://www.kidsprogramminglanguage.com/

    KPL makes it easy for kids to learn computer programming. KPL makes it fun, too, by making it especially easy to program computer games, with cool graphics and sound.

    Too bad I just learned about the XO Give One Get One program.

  4. Tyler Mace

    An interesting note is Intel’s recent departure from it’s OLPC partnership. I’ve read that they cited ‘philosophical impasse’ (or something similar) as their basis behind the decision to pull out. I find it sorta odd that they’d move in this direction after they were intending on a CES presentation on the new Intel-based OLPC product… weird. Perhaps they were really only in bed with the endeavor for monetary reward exclusively.

    Furthermore, the Indian auto manufacturer is an outfit called Tata Motors and they’re offering a vehicle called the Tata Nano for around 2.5k (USD).

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