Kids in developing countries don't drop out of school because they have to work the fields or care for their younger siblings, Nicholas Negroponte said in his plenary lecture at AAAS. They drop out because they're bored. Just after he got laptops to all the kids at a rural schoolhouse in Cambodia--one of the inspirations for his nonprofit, One Laptop per Child--there was a 100% increase in attendance. No one dropped out. (Parents were fans, too, mainly because the laptop screens were the brightest light in the house.)
The fact that half the kids in the world don't even have electricity isn't stopping Negroponte--on leave from the MIT Media Lab, which he cofounded--from trying to connect them to the internet. One Laptop per Child's machines can be powered by mechanical energy (the human upper body can generate about 20 Watts, 10 Watts for a malnourished child), have a minimum of dust-susceptible holes, and use a WiFi mesh network so just one satellite dropped into a village can connect everyone. The laptops are maintained by the kids themselves, and built so they can be. Making a laptop like that goes against "corporate strategy," as manufacturers told Negroponte over and over again. He converted them with the scale of his vision: 10-50 million laptops a year. $187 each at the moment, the price fluctuates based the price of nickel and cobalt, currency and memory. The cute, bright green, two-eared computers have been more expensive than he wanted, and slower to propagate. Everybody warned Negroponte that a nonprofit was not the way to go, but "as I told my son, it's possible for everybody to be wrong." The strategy has so far gotten him partnerships with the UN and several nations, half a million machines in the pipeline, and last night, a standing ovation from hundreds of scientists.