Next Big Thing: Laptops For The Poor A group of computer scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology is trying to help the world's poor children — one computer at a time. Mary Lou Jepsen, chief technology officer for the One Laptop Per Child project, explains her group's initiative.
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Next Big Thing: Laptops For The Poor

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Next Big Thing: Laptops For The Poor

Next Big Thing: Laptops For The Poor

Next Big Thing: Laptops For The Poor

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A group of computer scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology is trying to help the world's poor children — one computer at a time. Mary Lou Jepsen, chief technology officer for the One Laptop Per Child project, explains her group's initiative.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

How would you like to buy a new laptop for $150? Does that sound crazy?

Well, it's not in places like Brazil, Peru, Nigeria and Uruguay. That's because a non-profit organization, One Laptop Per Child, plans to equip children in some developing nations with specially designed, low-cost laptops. It's the Next Big Thing.

With us to talk about this is Mary Lou Jepsen, the chief technology officer for One Laptop Per Child. She joins by phone from her office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. MARY LOU JEPSEN (Chief Technology Officer, One Laptop Per Child): Thank you for having me. It's a delight to be here.

MARTIN: Well, thanks. What is the group trying to accomplish with this project?

Ms. JEPSEN: We're trying to give kids that currently have very little opportunity for a good education a much better chance at a better education.

MARTIN: What kinds of computers are these, and how can you provide them so inexpensively?

Ms. JEPSEN: These were a - we sort of like a who's who in technology and threw them a new problem. You know, how would you design $100 laptop for the developing world? So what we've designed is actually a pretty stunning technological marvel.

It's extremely low power. You can use it outside. You can drop it. It's mesh networked, which means if any laptop in an entire village is connected to the Internet, they all are, and that's just for starters. It's got a security system that's almost impossible to steal. It's got a new user interface called Sugar. It's very sweet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JEPSEN: And what that allows is peer-to-peer networking. The situation in the developing world is so bad, where you could say, you know, in the U.S., just send the teachers for another year of training or things like that. But in the developing world, it's so bad you have to leverage the kids themselves. And that's what we're trying to do through the software and hardware.

MARTIN: Well, what about the places where electrical supply is inconsistent? How does that work? Do you have to plug these in? Do they work off solar? How does the juice work? Where does the juice come from?

Ms. JEPSEN: They are so low power, they make their own electricity. You can plug almost anything into them - a crank, a string pole system, a foot pedal system, a little windmill, a $10 solar panel - and it charges up the laptop. We're at about 5 percent the power consumption of a regular laptop, about one or two watts is their average power consumption, which is very, very low. I mean, think about a 100-watt light bulb for a comparison.

So it's so low power because we're going into places where, you know, half of the kids in the world live with little or no access to electricity at home. So we had to design a laptop - as difficult as it was to get its cost down and it's even harder to get the power consumption down. The batteries last a really long time is the other side of it.

MARTIN: Yeah, I'd kind of like to have one for my Blackberry, if you don't mind.

Ms. JEPSEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But what do you say to those who argue that technology is only as good as the teachers? You know, we have stories in this country where schools have undergone upgrades, and you've got computers stacked in a supply closet someplace with the door lock because there's nobody there to teach the kids how to use them. What do you say to that?

Ms. JEPSEN: We design the laptop that the kids will have to learn how to use, because you know what? A lot of them don't have teachers. In some of the countries we're going into, half the kids aren't even in school. And there, the situation isn't, you know - we didn't design this for the U.S.

We designed this for the developing world to try to really work on the big problems of poverty, peace, the environment - and there is no solution without education. Study after study in countries all over the world has shown that kids can learn how to read, write and so forth just by, you know, they don't even need a keyboard.

There's an experiment in India called the Hole in the Wall, where a guy put a computer and a mouse, not even the keyboard, in a hole in the wall. And kids in every village he put these in India went and gathered around it and learned how to read and learn how to write just by interacting with the screen and it changing - kids learn by - kids are learning…

MARTIN: They're naturally curious.

Ms. JEPSEN: They learn how to walk, they learn how to talk without instruction. If you can have a great teacher, that's terrific. But, you know, the situation is such that most kids in the developing world are in school two and a half hours a day from age six to 12, and then they're done. They got to go get a job. Their teachers have a sixth-grade education.

In the best cases, they're trying to do best by the kids, you know. They show up, they teach the kids how to memorize, how to exercise, how to sing until those kids are 12, and we can do so much more.

MARTIN: You can teach kids how to use their own brain power to explore their own interests, as oppose to sort of passively waiting for to be taught. A couple - down to our last minute or so, Mary Lou, thanks for speaking with us. But I wanted to ask a couple of questions, which is I know you have prototypes in the field now.

When does the big delivery happen? When are these computers really get into the hands of the people you want to have them? And what about the U.S.? I mean, there are kids here. There's still a digital divide in the U.S.

Ms. JEPSEN: That's right.

MARTIN: What - how is that? Are you thinking about that as well? Is that part of your agenda?

Ms. JEPSEN: Sure. We're going to be in high-volume mass production this fall, and they'll be, you know, anyone that wants to order them in bulk can order them. They're given - the kids own them, but they're given to them through their countries. The ministries of education buy them and distribute them like textbooks, and the kids own the laptop, which is an infinite number of textbooks.

The U.S. - we're interested - we've announced that we're going to do something in the U.S., something like 19 governors have contacted us, and we're trying to figure out in which place it makes sense to do this. The U.S. is anomalous for us to deal with. There are more school districts in the U.S. than in the entire rest of the world combined. Most countries do it centralized…

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. JEPSEN: …make it easier…

MARTIN: To…

Ms. JEPSEN: …frankly easier to deal with the federal government…

MARTIN: Interesting.

Ms. JEPSEN: We're 16 person organization…

MARTIN: All right. Well, maybe you'll come back and talk to us again when the program gets to the next phase. I'd love to hear more.

Ms. JEPSEN: Okay.

MARTIN: All right. Thanks.

Ms. JEPSEN: All right. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Thank you. Mary Lou Jepsen is chief technology officer of One Laptop Per Child. She joined us by phone from her office in Cambridge. For a link to One Laptop Per Child online, please go to our Web site. That's npr.org/tellmemore.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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