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His Big Idea: a Laptop for Every Poor Child in the World

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In a poverty-stricken village in Cambodia in 2001, Nicholas Negroponte had an epiphany. The computer wiz—he’s director of the media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—was watching children at a school he had founded hop on the Internet using laptops he’d bought cheap on eBay. “They were looking up Brazilian soccer teams,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Has the tooth fairy arrived in this one village—or could you do this for every kid on the planet?'”

And so was born an audacious gambit. Through his “One Laptop Per Child” campaign, Negroponte wants to get a computer into the hands of every child in the world, no matter how remote or destitute. To accomplish this, his Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit has developed the XO—a solar or manually or electrically powered, wireless Internet-connective, green-and-white piece of hardware designed to withstand sand, water, extreme heat and other conditions typical of developing countries. For two weeks starting Nov. 12, Negroponte is reaching out to consumers with a “Give 1 Get 1” offer: For $399 ($200 of which is tax-deductible), people can buy a laptop for themselves and one for a child in a developing country such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti or Rwanda [see box]. “When school may not even exist or is under a tree, a connected laptop is pretty good,” says Negroponte, who adds that 7,500 have already been distributed under pilot programs.

After much favorable press, Negroponte—who has traveled nearly every day for the past two years drumming up support for his dream—has faced criticism from those who say funds are better used providing food and medicine. His reply: “It’s not a laptop project; it’s an education project. In Cambodia the family gets the kid to check prices for rice, so they’re a little smarter when the wholesaler comes to buy. That’s real impact.”

His supreme confidence, displayed in statistic-filled answers and a professorial tone, has helped this son of a Greek shipping magnate (whose early funders include Google and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and whose brother John Negroponte is U.S. Deputy Secretary of State) to retool his approach after getting less support from some foreign governments than he initially hoped. Still, Negroponte, who is divorced and has an adult son, is encouraged by recent commitments from Mongolia, Uruguay, Peru and Rwanda and gets high praise from Juliano Bittencourt, coordinator of a pilot program at the Luciana de Abreu school in Porto Alegre, Brazil. With laptops, the children “become authors of their own ideas,” he says. Student Vitoria Barboza Alves, 10, teaches her mother to use the computer and searches Google “for what I’m curious about, like how the toucan puts his beak under his wing to sleep.” Classmate Yolanda Diaz Perachi, 11, thought modeling was her ticket; after using her laptop to create animated drawings, she now wants to be an art teacher. “I can go online,” she says, “and search for anything.”

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