May 26, 2016

Insights from Nicholas Negroponte at the World Business Forum

Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab shares on the future of technology.

Digital pioneer Nicholas Negroponte co founder and director MIT Media Lab and author of the book Being Digital, shares stories and insights on the latest in technological transformation, the crossroads of civic responsibility and technological innovation and how to harness digital.

The first question I ask every morning is will normal market forces do what I am doing today?

If the answer is yes, I stop doing it because normal market forces will accomplish what I’m doing any way.  But what are the things normal market forces don’t do? Because they’re too far off, or they’re not part of the commercial world?

I believe competition is the root of educational failure

If you look at countries that are outliers in learning, Finland is always up there. In Finland, in Kindergarten through to 12th grade there’s no homework and no tests. Because there’s no competition, the kids grow up 100% based on collaboration not competition. And competition sometimes gets in the way of science and some civic responsibility.

Children are our most precious natural resource, so we asked how can we engage them in learning? What is learning? And what is learning how to learn?  You can go through school and not learn a lot of things but you learn learning. And you can be very creative along the way. We thought in terms of constructionism – how kids construct versus being instructed.

Seymour Papert of MIT wanted kids to write computer programs because the process of an algorithm and code and execution was the closest a child would get to thinking about thinking. It didn’t happen because coding was hijacked by companies to make apps for us to consume versus the process itself being an engaging and learning process.

As the world becomes more connected we’ll have an inoculation against ignorance.

As part of the One Laptop per Child program, we distributed over three million laptops to children around the world without access to the internet. After that we experimented with a smaller project where we dropped tablets into villages where the children and adults weren’t literate, loaded with thousands of apps that were all about learning. They hadn’t seen letters apart from a few T-shirt labels. We left the tablets with a solar panel and with no instructions on how to use the tablet.

Once they were turned on every act was recorded and once per month we’d go in and swap SIM cards and get a complete record of what the kids were doing. In one village, within less than 10 minutes one kid figured out there was an on switch. In five days they were using 50 apps per child averaging seven hours per day. Within two weeks they were singing ABC songs and within six months they’d hacked Android.

For the 300 million who don’t go to school because there isn’t a school, this could have a big impact.

Three key insights about technology, investment and success

  1. Figure out the five or six things converging, and that is where you invest. Not in one technology: For example, we worked on virtual reality in 1966; it only really came out this Christmas because it took all that time for the convergence of computation and gaming etc.  I also worked on an early program that was an early version of Uber but it took 30 years for GPS, small micro electronic, connectivity and email to converge to allow it to come together.
  2. Incrementalism is the enemy of creativity: In the world of new ideas, incrementalism is the enemy. When someone says use common sense or be realistic a red flag goes up. You want a certain number of people to be absolutely not realistic. At the MIT Media Lab, we hire people with an anti disciplinary nature – the only qualification is no other place will accept you. In fact in our job descriptions recently – the first sentence has the word ‘misfit’ in it.
  3. The best measurement of success is self evidence:If have to measure it, it isn’t worth doing. If you need to measure just a noticeable difference fine – but no one had to measure the effect of Uber.  The impact of a big change is generally seen – self evidence is highly underrated.

 Amazing projects being worked on today

  • Neri Oxman, the architect and designer, is working on building a car out of one part that grows out of a seed in the ground.  People are already growing chairs and building – biotech is the next digital.
  • For our brain science and prosthetics group, the artificial and the natural are becoming the same. It’s not that we will inform design by understanding nature, we are actually going to change nature. We will do better than nature. The future is genetically modified everything. Genetically modified food was screwed up because it was a corporate proprietary technology where they didn’t understand the difference between market and mission.
  • The man who worked on making electronic ink and others in the lab really believe the way to interact with the brain is from the inside not the outside – through the blood stream. For example, swallow a pill and know French! Last week scientists at Berkley University isolated words in the brain, and an executive at Facebook and Oculus Rift Dr Mary Lou Jepsen, is making a mind reading machine where she can show thousands of images and show which ones you’re thinking about.

The world of connectivity should be free

Connecting the last billion people is where my heart is – and it’s 90% attitude: it’s not cost, or the technology. One of the attitudes to break is related to those in the public realm. telecommunications has brought connectivity to a large number of people as a commercial practice. Good for them. But their time is over. Because the next wave is the civic and public realm.

For 30 years we’ve told our kids the public sector is for losers. As a consequence you have a world where civics isn’t as well attended as it should be. I believe the internet is a human right – a civic responsibility like light posts and roads that should be paid for by civic society.

The way to get it started, which doesn’t cost much, is a whole constellation of low earth orbiting satellites above the jurisdiction and sovereignty of every country. There would be a $5 billion price tag to connect the world and another $5 billion to run it for a decade. That is 5 weeks of what it costs the US to be in Afghanistan.

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