Nicholas Negroponte and other MIT luminaries have been working on a project to build a sub-$100, hand-cranked WiFi laptop, with the objective of supplying one apiece to every child in the developing world. They've done lots of cool stuff along the way — for example, they've remained committed to providing entirely free and open operating systems for the machines, so that their owners can tinker with them, improve on them, and publish their improvements (they turned down an offer from Apple to supply OS X with every machine because it fails this test — parts of Apple's OS are proprietary and can't lawfully be modified by users).
Now they've actually demoed a working prototype for the Secretary General of the UN, which cost just a hair more than the final price: $110. Wired News has a short interview with Negroponte on the milestone:
WN: Is the goal literally to make computers available to every child that wants one in the world?
Negroponte: It's every child in the world whether they want one or not. They may not know they want one.
WN: Do you have any thoughts on what the long-term impact of giving all these kids a programming environment and an open-source ethic might be?
Negroponte: Those are two different questions. Giving the kids a programming environment of any sort, whether it's a tool like Squeak or Scratch or Logo to write programs in a childish way — and I mean that in the most generous sense of the word, that is, playing with and building things — is one of the best ways to learn. Particularly to learn about thinking and algorithms and problem solving and so forth.
And providing the tools for some people — it's going to be a very limited subset (who will use them) — to develop software that will be redistributed and versioned and so forth out into the world is also important. It's part of the whole open-source movement.
Clive Thompson has some good commentary on this:
As the creators of this initiative explain in the online FAQ for their project:
Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What's wrong with community-access centers?
One does not think of community pencils — kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful.
Precisely the point: A computer is a tool that creates new modes of thought — just like a paintbrush or a new language. As the seminal education thinker Seymour Papert argued in his superb book Mindstorms, one of the reasons people don't learn math is that it is a language that requires immersion in "mathland," much as learning French requires living amongst those who speak French. If you try and learn French in an English-speaking country, with no one and no place to practise it, you'll fail. Same goes for math. Papert argued that computers — most specifically, basic computer programming — formed a virtual "mathland".
Update Jhai foundation co-founder Lee Felsenstein has published a detailed critique of the One Laptop Per Child project. I disagree with some of what he says and am curious about the rest — at the least, this constitutes a roadmap of issues that the OLPC project will have to resolve on the way to realizing its vision. (Thanks, Ciaron!)
Update 2 Here's some commentary from Jhai's other founder, Lee Thorn