What If Every Child Had A Laptop?

Lesley Stahl Reports On The Dream And The Difficulties Of Getting A Computer To Every Child

CBS All Access
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"You're saying give them a laptop even if they don't go to school?" Stahl asks.

"Especially if they don't go to school. If they don't go to school, this is school in a box."

Negroponte took a leave of absence from MIT two years ago, and has done little else but work on this ever since.

He says it's purely humanitarian, and non-profit. With start-up money from Google and other big companies, he assembled a team of engineers and programmers to come up something that would stand up to Third World conditions.

"You can pour water on the keyboard. You can dip into - you know, you can dip the base into a bathtub. You can carry it the rain," he says. "It's more robust than your normal laptop. It doesn't even have holes in the side of it. If you look at it: dirt, sand, I mean, there's no place or it to go into the machine."

Negroponte says it's designed for a child.

It looks like a toy - on purpose. But it's a serious computer with many innovations. For instance, it's the first laptop with a screen you can use outdoors, in full sunlight. Walter Bender, the president of software on the project, says there are loads of new features. You can draw on it, or compose music.

"It actually looks like an animal. These are meant to look like ears, right?" Stahl asks.

"Right. These ears are the way the laptop communicates with the rest of the world so the laptop listens with these ears," Bender says. "Those are radio antennas, sorta like the…"

"I don't have that on my computer," Stahl remarks.

"No. And one of the reasons why this computer has probably two or three times better Wi-Fi range than your computer is because you don't have that."

"It has two to three times better range?"

"Better range than your $3,000 dollar laptop."

"How long does the battery work?"

"By the time we're done with all our tuning, the battery should last 10, 12 hours with heavy use."

If the battery does run out and you live in a thatch hut in the middle of nowhere, you can charge it up with a crank or a salad spinner.

A minute or two of spinning, Bender says, and you get 10 or 20 minutes of reading.

Wayan Vota is director of Geekcorps, a type of Peace Corps that brings technology to developing countries. "The One Laptop Per Child computer is a computing revolution," he says.

He's so fascinated by this computer he has a Web site devoted to it.

"It's an entire change in the way you use computers," Vota says. "It's waterproof… I can't wait to type outside without worrying about dust or heat. So the One Laptop Per Child technology is cutting edge. It's clock-stopping hot."

But he doesn't buy Negroponte's contention that kids can figure it out without a teacher.

"If you hand a child a violin or a piano they can make noise with it, right? But will they be able to make music?" Vota says. "And if you give a child a computer they'll be able to operate the computer but will they really be able to learn without having a teacher, whether it's formal, informal, to help them along that learning path?"

He says there are other problems. For poor countries like Cambodia, there are costs beyond the price of the computer, like satellites to connect to the Internet. And what about theft?

"What says an older kid isn't just going to swipe this thing?" Stahl asks. "It seems like it's inevitable."

"Well we spent a lot of time on security," Negroponte says. "If this is stolen from a child, within 24 hours it stops working. It will not be useable."

But lately One Laptop has had to contend with a new challenge: competition. A lab in Sao Paulo is testing two other laptops the Brazilian government is thinking of buying for school children, including one made in India and Negroponte's biggest competitor: the Classmate by Intel, the giant chip maker.

If Negroponte's program is purely humanitarian and only to benefit children, why would for-profit companies pursue the same goal?

"Because the numbers are so large," Negroponte says. "They look at those numbers and they say, 'if we're not in those, we're toast'."