The $100 Laptop Heads for Uganda

Heroes actor Masi Oka has a new job — pitchman for the $100 laptop. Oka represents the group One Laptop Per Child, which seeks to get computers in the hands of young people around the world. Recently, production began on an initial run of machines which will be distributed to children in Uruguay and Mongolia.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

It was a really eye-catching headline when the idea first went public: the $100 laptop for in-need kids. MIT computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte dreamed up the idea to develop cheap, solar-powered and virtually indestructible laptops, and then give one to every child in a developing world. Now, the big dream is closer to reality as assembly lines in a Chinese factory started up earlier this week. The first 250,000 of the green and white laptops are set to be delivered, but there have been issues with the cost of the machines and getting customers on board to order the things.

Monday may change all that with a shopping/charity opportunity from the One Laptop per Child Foundation, just as Christmas rolls on up, with a buy one, get one program. The foundation has brought a hero on board to help spread the word about this, actor Masi Oka, who bends space and time on NBC's hit show, "Heroes," worked for years as a former computer science nerd. He has degrees in math and science from an Ivy League school, so he seemed a perfect choice as global ambassador for the project. I spoke with him yesterday, and he told me why he got on board.

Mr. MASI OKA (Actor): My feeling is that, you know, a nation's, like, best resource is not any of these material goods that it produces, but it's actually their children. And we're hoping that these laptops, you know, provides a better education for these kids in need in these more poor countries.

And, yes, you know, having food, water, clothing, shelter and medicine, they are all extremely important. There's no denying that. But by giving out these laptops, it'll enrich their educational process. And I believe education is the key to, you know, having peace, you know, the environmental problems, or poverty in general. So…

STEWART: From what I've read, Masi, the concept was proposed about five years ago, and now it finally went into production in recent weeks. Can you tell me some of the features that are on these computers that these kids will get?

Mr. OKA: Yeah, absolutely. The laptop is called the XO laptop, and it was designed - specifically designed for, like, children in remote and rural environments in the developing world. So it's very different from the laptop that we're used to, you know, that adults use in, like, the working office or, you know, the ones we have at home. And, like, some of the unique features we have, it's like, kind of like a very rugged design in a sealed case to make sure it's water and shock resistant, you know, because we have it mainly for the kids. We also have, like, a high resolution screen that can be read in direct sunlight, as well as indoors in the dark. It kind of, you know, it has a very low power consumption. And I think it uses only about 5 to 10 percent of the average wattage of a normal laptop, so it can have, you know, a lot of lasting power based on the, you know, based on the battery it comes with. It can actually be powered by solar energy as well. I mean, it's the…

STEWART: And I'm guessing that's because these will be going to some remote areas…

Mr. OKA: Yes. Exactly. And, you know, they…

STEWART: …in places where there's not a…

Mr. OKA: …which they don't have, you know, readily access to - easy access to power supply, or whatnot. So idea seemed - make sure it's durable and it's efficient in its power consumption. And it has easy Internet access. You know, it's really great, and, you know, it doesn't have any lead, mercury, cadmium or PVC. It's meant to be pretty much child proof.

STEWART: I understand that the cost goal was $100, but they're not quite there yet. They cost a little bit more at this point.

Mr. OKA: Yeah, right now, they're about - I think they're running around $188. You know, and on top of that, like, the government pays for the shipping and handling and the extended warranties if necessary. But the idea is the more laptops, the more education we can, you know, provide for the children, the bigger the scale is going to be. And as we know, with cost model things, you know, scale's a big issue. As long as we can have more mass production of these XO laptops, the cost will go down.

STEWART: Now, if somebody's been listening to this interview and thinking, gosh, I'd really like to get involved in this and help out some way, there's a give one, get one program. Can you give us the details on that?

Mr. OKA: Absolutely, give one, get one is available to, like, the people living in USA and Canada. You know, it is a charitable giving program to help raise funds for the OLPC Foundation. And from November 12th through November 26th, people in the public can buy two XO laptops for $399, and one is to give a child in a developing nation and one to get for themselves, a deserving child or a friend. And of the $399, $199 is tax deductible. So the laptops will be delivered on a first-come, first-serve basis starting December. If they want any more information, you know, to participate in, they should go to the Web site www.laptop.org, or call 1-877-70-LAPTOP.

STEWART: You have done an excellent job as the ambassador.

Mr. OKA: Oh, thank you.

STEWART: You explained it. You got the plug in there. That's pretty impressive.

Mr. OKA: I'm still trying to learn, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKA: But it's a fantastic organization. I really believe in it. You know, please, this is an education project more so than just a pure laptop computer project, so, you know, I hope…

STEWART: How do you find time to do this, considering that you're involved in one of the most talked about and watched TV shows on right now, "Heroes?" How are you finding time to work on this?

Mr. OKA: Well, I love "Heroes," and I think it's a fantastic opportunity. But, you know, I think it's part of the reason why I wanted to be in this business, and I was so fortunate to receive the visibility I have right now. I'm so grateful for it, and I was looking for something to give back in return, you know, like, have some philanthropic activity. And this organization just kind of - right place at the right time, same way I got "Heroes." I was at the right place at the right time, and I just fell in love with what it stood for and, you know, it really met my background. You know, because there's a lot of great organizations out there, and it's very hard to choose. But this one just suited me, and it just made sense for some reason.

STEWART: Well, Masi Oka, thank you so much for spending some time with us here at NPR. And good luck with everything.

Mr. OKA: Thank you very much.

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