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Negroponte Wants to Connect the Last Billion

Nicholas Negroponte wants to launch a stationary satellite to bring Internet access to corners of the globe that are not near cities.


Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the One Laptop Per Child initiative, wants to launch a stationary satellite to bring Internet access to the corners of the globe that are not near cities.

Expanding connectivity around the world is the topic du jour for the tech moguls at Google and Facebook.

But Negroponte, speaking at the TED conference in Vancouver on Monday, said he has a slightly different slant.

“I think the challenge is to connect the last billion people. It’s very different than connecting the next billion,” Negroponte said. “The next billion are low-hanging fruit, but the last billion are rural.”

“Poverty tends to be created by our society,” Negroponte said. “The people in that community are not poor in the same way at all, [though] they may be primitive.”

Negroponte said he estimated the cost of bringing Internet access to 100 million people is $2 billion.

That would apparently cover a terabit satellite with one million ground stations, 10 years of operation and 10 million tablets, according to Negroponte’s slides, though he didn’t go into the details.

“Two billion [dollars] is what we were spending in Afghanistan every week, so surely if we can connect Africa and the last billion people for numbers like that, we should be doing it,” Negroponte said.

A more specific satellite implementation plan is in the works, Negroponte said, but he wasn’t able to get permission from his partners to announce their participation at TED.

Speaking at the 30th edition of TED, Negroponte recalled his many previous appearances at the evolving event. TED host Chris Anderson labeled Negroponte “the patron saint of TED.”

“One of the things about age is that I can tell you with great confidence I’ve been to the future,” Negroponte said. “How many times in my life have I said ‘Oh, in 10 years, this will happen,’ then 10 years come. ‘In five years, this will happen,’ then five years come.”

That includes precedents for touch interfaces, turn-by-turn directions, street-view maps and wearable computers, many of which Negroponte had predicted and demoed in TED Talks over the years, often based on prototypes from the MIT Media Lab.

But even when the future arrives, it’s not fully realized, Negroponte said with a touch of frustration.

“I look today at some of the work being done around the ‘Internet of Things’ and it’s kind of tragically pathetic,” Negroponte said.

According to Negroponte, instead of smartphones manipulating the world around them, things in the world should actually get smarter — for example, ovens should recognize what’s placed inside them, and cook it according to their owners’ preferences.

What’s further out in the future, at least according to Negroponte, is a good bit weirder than today’s future-in-progress.

His prediction for what will happen in 30 years?

“One of the things about learning how to read, we have been doing a lot of consuming of information through our eyes — that may be a very inefficient challenge. My prediction is you’re going to swallow a pill to learn to read English,” Negroponte said. “The way to do it is through the bloodstream. It’s ingesting.”

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