Nicholas Negroponte talks to Ali Velshi

The MIT Media Lab co-founder and One Laptop per Child chairman talks about the digital revolution

Ali Velshi: Let's go back to the '80s with predictions that you had made about some basic things that have come to pass. And one of them was that things like the TV, which we didn't move around, got their signals over the air, and things like phones (which were designed to be mobile) where in most cases attached to a wall with a hard wire. And you had said that wasn't going to happen, it was going to be the other way around. 

Nicholas Negroponte: It really goes back to the late '60s, early '70s, where it was clear that everything that could be digital would be digital. So when you transmit digital signals, they lend themselves to doing things that previously they couldn't.

So for example, over the air became a much more controllable. You could make cells. You could do things that previously were not possible. And the TV set, and the cables that came into our homes at that time were fixed. They were using real estate in the sense that there it was and it couldn't move. So why would a TV set use anything but a cable, and why would phones? So it was so certain that it was going happen.

But what accelerated it was that it coincided historically with the deregulation of phone companies. 

You also said and in fact were involved in the development of a device which was going to use your fingers as the input. But the concept that most of your communication would be done with your fingers as an input was also something that you and others were laughed at for.

Very much laughed at. People wrote even technical articles … why it wouldn't work. And people said, "No, for three reasons it won't work. No. 1, your finger occludes what you want to touch." In other words, it's blocking. "No. 2, that it doesn't have enough resolution." Also wrong. But the one that was the most amusing, they said, "It'll get the display dirty."And we didn't want dirty displays with fingerprints on them.

So Nicholas, this is a long way to get my audience to understand that you were involved in something called the MIT Media Lab. It's an innocuous name for a place where so much of what we do and how we interact and how we communicate was developed. So let's just go back a little bit. You went to MIT as a freshman.


And I'm not quite sure you've actually left.

I actually haven't. I've been there for 55 years. When I joined the faculty, it was the faculty from which I graduated, which was architecture. So I was in the architecture department. I'd fallen in love with computers, and so the things that I did research on, I taught, had to do with computer-aided design and computer graphics.

I started the Media Lab as an offshoot of that, where the focus of the Media Lab would be human-computer interaction. Couple of interesting things were happening at the same time. The personal computer was being invented. It was clear that telecommunications was going become, you know, much more widely available at lower costs and bigger reach. And it was also clear that in this digital transformation, things that we call television news, newspapers, magazines, computer — all these things would kind of merge into one. You can get away with a great deal when you have the momentum of a research lab that is also attracting, to be honest with you, lots of money. 

Ali Velshi and Nicholas Negroponte

Many people were pouring money into the Media Lab, so it was like sort of the golden goose laying the golden eggs.

Plus we had a trump card. The trump card was my partner in starting the Media Lab, because I'm often introduced, rightfully, as the as the co-founder. Nobody asked who the other was. The other was a man named Jerry Wiesner. Jerry was Jack Kennedy's science adviser, 25 years older than I. But it was his baby too. He loved it. He just happened to be the president of MIT. 

We had license to do things, which, you know, I can be a little revisionist and tell you it's all because we were smart. But some of it is because we had a lot of space.

Does that space to be that innovative exist today? Clearly, things are happening. Clearly, things are being built. Clearly, Apple comes up with a new product every year.

Yeah, but Apple's new product every year — which is absolutely true, I use nothing but Apple products — but Apple, if you had to think of a company that's contributed zero to science and technology, it's Apple. So yes, they're a creative company, but they don't help in the sense of being an open, sort of very different research lab. 

What are the things that you expected to be happening in the world of technology and design today that haven't yet happened?

Well, I wrote about it 20 years ago and being digital. I wrote about speech being a very dominant interface, which it really hasn't. It's only started in the past year or two. I thought holography as a display medium would have moved much faster. 

We've seen some movement on that and some experimentation, but it hasn't become mainstream.

Not at all, no. So those are the specific kinds of things. Perhaps a different phrasing of this question. "What were the ones that weren't even on the horizon that appeared? Some, you know, a little bit anonymously?" … Take Twitter, for example. You know, we did a lot of the things that are now companies, like the basics of Facebook, and YouTube was up and running at the Media Lab 25 years ago. But Twitter we missed.

So we're all smart enough not to suggest that anything you've come up with or any idea you might have is silly. And one I happen to like, partially because I eat a lot, is this idea of ingesting information. What do you mean by this?

What I mean by it is — and let me jump to the end and then work back toward it — is that you should be able to swallow a pill and know English or swallow a pill and know about the French Revolution. And the reason I say that, crazy as it sounds, is that the best way — and I think the word "best" is appropriate — to get close to the neurons in the brain is really through the blood cells, through the bloodstream …

If you can put nanorobots in the bloodstream, they can basically visit every part of your brain, every part that a blood cell goes to. Deposit things, take away things. So, you know, if you need to have some plumbing done, that's one thing. But if you need information deposited, is that plausible? And if it is, does French live somewhere? Do things live in certain places? And if they do, then you actually could get it through the bloodstream, which means you could ingest it. 

‘You should be able to swallow a pill and know English or swallow a pill and know about the French Revolution. And the reason I say that, crazy as it sounds, is that the best way … to get close to the neurons in the brain is really through the blood cells, through the bloodstream.’

Nicholas Negroponte

You made a switch 15 years ago? Maybe I'm off by five years. But you sort of decided that you wanted to use all of this knowledge you had and leverage the relationships you've had to now take technology and design and solve a global problem, the problem of education of children. And so you started this idea of one laptop per child, an affordable laptop that can be deployed all around the world easily, without the infrastructure that you would think of as needing computers.

I said, What is holding back kids being connected in very large numbers and having the kind of computing devices that I thought 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds should have?

The one that I thought was not going be solved by normal market forces was the laptop. And this thing was getting bloated and fatter and fatter, and it wasn't really being, you know, more responsive to somebody using it. But what this managed to do — because the prices were going down for hardware and they're going down modestly for software, but because they were using more of each, there was a constant. It was like somebody said, "Laptops will cost $1,000."

And somehow they always end up costing $1,000. They might be better than the one before —


But we weren't seeing prices drop.

So I said, "Let's make a $100 laptop." That was so implausible, but suddenly those people who didn't know me knew MIT. They couldn't imagine that I'd gone off my rocker to say $100 laptop, so they could ridicule a little bit, but it's — it was sort of plausible.

And some people who really wanted to help said, "Well, not only is it plausible, we would like to help you do it." So we ended up raising $30 million in a week to do this project, and it just went off with a launch. 

I mean, we had no trouble getting very high-end, if you will, partners to make a low-end device. And this was, for me, the difference between inexpensive and cheap — in fact, that has properties that laptops don't have. For example, is it a laptop that kids can use in the sun? By the way, rotate it, it became a tablet. That was long before tablets were —

You could charge it on its own, with the crank.

You could crank it … Three and a half million of them were built, and they're in the hands of kids, and then they triggered others. And today about 50 million children use laptops, where, in almost every case, that child would have never, ever been eligible for.

You had a long relationship with Steve Jobs. You had known him since 1979. And at some point you had actually shown him one of these laptops, these Exo laptops, and you wanted him to sort of evaluate some of it. He ended up sending you an email in May of 2007 where you had given him this sample to look at, and he writes back to you, he says, "Nicholas, we've known each other a long time. Too long for me to do anything other than tell you what I think. The software is some of the worst I've ever seen. Please don't be too mad at me."

First of all, he was right. OK, so he really was right. I knew Steve so well in the '80s, particularly the early '80s but maybe even the late '70s, and I hadn't seen very much of him. But when we announced the laptop, he showed some interest in it, and we exchanged some back and forth that. This particular case that spurred the letter, he said, "When you're next out here, let's spend a few hours together. I'd love to see it."

So I went to Apple, and we spent about three hours, just the two of us in a small room. And so he took it off to play with it over the weekend, and that was the result. But I remember the meeting for a different reason, because he had in his pocket —he was fondling his — and the iPhone had been mentioned, but nobody had seen it. So he pulls it out, and he says, "I wanna show you my life's work." So suddenly it made my laptop look incidental … 

And it was on a Thursday. And I said, "Steve, you remember I'm on the Motorola board. Can I tell my colleagues what I've seen?" He said, "Well, look, people know this exists. Yes, you can. But again, don't tell the press, but of course you can, yeah, because we're having our announcement."

Turns out the Motorola meeting was the following Monday. And I described what I'd saw. I said, "You know, this is pretty important sort of thing here. And it's, again, it's got lots of stuff going on."

The one thing I can't get people to answer … is how all of these leaps forward address a basic intractable problem globally, and that is income inequality, that is the lack of good jobs. Because everything we invent makes us more efficient. How do we make up for the fact that we are inventing ways of putting people out of work?

The discussion actually isn't absent. Let me call it nascent, because the jobs that are being eliminated now are the so-called knowledge workers that we thought were the ones that were immune, and the people who worked with their hands, they're going to be put out of business.

I think the solution is to create an intellectual base that is so high that there really is a much higher platform for people to find jobs, to find fulfillment. And in fact the word "job" itself may not be the aspiration. People may not be looking for a job with a capital J in the … same way. And when people even think of Uber — and I happen to use Uber a lot — what the drivers say is, "You know, I'm kind of my own boss, and I do it when I want to. And I don't have to tell anybody, and you know, it was my second job, I was doing something else, and then I liked it so much it kind of became my primary job." I'm not trying to advocate for Uber, but there's a different way to look at employment that may emerge.

Just so that I can make good decisions and possibly investments or career choices, what's next? What's the thing that guys like me are not thinking about?

Oh, that's easy. It's easy. If you have a kid or a grandchild, biotech is the new digital. There's just no question. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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