The Friday Interview: Nicholas Negroponte, MIT MediaLab


3 Oct 2003

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When the history books are written of the latter decades of the 20th century and the advent of the Information Age, Nicholas Negroponte’s name will mostly likely occupy the same ranks as those of Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs. However, instead of leading a revolution in terms of computer hardware, microchips and software, Negroponte (pictured) will be remembered as the man who put the ‘digital’ before ‘lifestyle’.

Before the term ‘digital lifestyle’ became a realistic realm for SMS, IM, email, internet shopping, online auctions, peer-to-peer music and film file swapping, blogging and TiVO, Negroponte authored ‘Being Digital’, a book that has been translated into 40 languages. It examined the social impact of technology on a world on the verge of seismic change. The Information Age had arrived.

Negroponte is also chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) MediaLab adjacent to Harvard University in Boston. The institute established its MediaLab Europe subsidiary in Dublin nearly four years ago on the heels of a €70m investment by the government, MIT and various industry sponsors. The not-for-profit organisation was established to expand human potential through invention and some 100 people are employed in Dublin working on everything from cars of the future to personal entertainment and the betterment of the lives of the disabled.

The lab funds itself through sponsorship with industry and includes investment from companies ranging from Intel and Fiat to Eircom and Lucent. The sheer wealth of creativity that the MediaLab in Dublin and its spiritual home in Boston unlock for corporations appears to be worth the investment for these companies. For less than the total cost of one senior scientist’s salary plus benefits, investment partners have the opportunity to gain access to two labs and the intellectual property of 44 faculty and academic research staff, 250 graduate students, 200 undergraduates from MIT, a network of more than 200 Global 1000 research partners and the combined experience of 100 years of business and technical innovation.

Negroponte was in Dublin last week to address a rapt audience about innovation and ideas in the digital age. Speaking authoritatively on the need for change in our lives and the need to fuel creativity in some of the world’s poorest and traditionally overlooked economies, Negroponte’s identity as a citizen of the world was made clear. He seldom stands still and spends most of his time travelling to assignments between a corporate, academic and humanitarian world.

With homes in Europe and the US, Negroponte has invested in more than 50 young technology companies throughout the world and is also involved in projects aimed at bringing digital technologies to some of the most isolated villages and communities in the world to accelerate economic change.

A regular visitor to these shores, Negroponte gave his audience a searing discourse on how the telecommunications industry in Europe is on the “cusp of change”.

“The tragedy for Europe is that after the initial success of GSM, the networks and the manufacturers decided let’s have that party all over again and push for 3G. The result was that it was too little too soon,” Negroponte said. In a private interview with siliconrepublic.com, he added that the problem is “fixable by moving beyond 3G as fast possible”.

Face to face, Negroponte’s passion about the need for change in 21st-century society and how technology could be the key to this change is made resoundingly clear. “The whole digital revolution has profoundly changed the way that people live and think. The period from 1949 when the word ‘bit’ was coined, and the next 50-plus years, was called the computer revolution. But as the digital world leaked into new things, fixed and mobile communications, the infrastructure, it became more a part of everyday life. The past 15 years have really been the difference between bits and atoms. If you looked at traditional industries where you made things, to the technology industry where you bring sand to one end of the factory and out come microchips to the making of software, which has no raw materials except brainpower. As we go forward it won’t be about the difference between bits and atoms but how they come together. Future technologies will be a little bit like salt and pepper, a little physical, a little virtual and shake it up.”

But still there is talk of the digital divide between rich and poor. The rich have it, the poor want it, which begs the question, are we in danger of creating a digital elite or aristocracy? “In some sense yes, but there are examples of where some developing countries have leapfrogged the developed world. European countries often look at when the number of cell phones exceeds the number of landlines as an indicator of progress. Well the first country where that actually happened was Cambodia, long before Europe. A simple reason, they had no basic telecoms infrastructure. It was cheap to build towers and install them, now penetration there is quite high. We are going to see that happen even more with wireless standards like 802.11b, which is enabling villages in Africa, Asia and Latin America to use broadband.

“I’m involved in a project in northern Cambodia with two villages that have no telecoms, no electricity, no water, no sewers. One of the villages has no road leading to it. That village now has satellite broadband with 802.11b deployed throughout the village. Laptops in the schools are charged by generator and the kids take them home at night. The whole world isn’t going to go that way, but you can suddenly do things that previously were unthinkable, without waiting for all the physical infrastructure to catch up,” he argues convincingly.

Ireland, home to Negroponte’s pet project MediaLab Europe, appears to be on a mission to shed traditional manufacturing and become a leader in R&D and innovation. However, the country is going through a crisis of change whereby traditional manufacturing appears to be upping sticks and heading to Singapore and Malaysia in the interest of lower costs and yet the country faces an infrastructure and skills deficit in terms of hosting the more attractive R&D-intensive responsibilities that sit at the upper tier of the supply chain.

Negroponte is nonplussed. “This is an old problem. In fact, in the 1980s the American Congress was worried that the good jobs in design and research would go to Japan and that we would get screwdriver factories. This was an unsubstantiated scare. But it was always there. For instance, if you look at Asia where they make the integrated circuits, most countries don’t have fabs, but they make the packaging. The Malaysians and Chinese want the fabs because they are the higher paying jobs, higher intellectual value and less labour intensive.

“Ireland has been a very special case because of the tax laws and incentives. You’ve attracted Intel but also jobs that could go away as quickly as they come. The need is clearly to stay up the food chain. India can produce 600,000 IT graduates, but not very imaginative ones. So you’ve got to win on imagination and Ireland’s pretty good at that. It’s fair to say that one of the reasons MediaLab came here was as part of an agenda to move up the research ladder. Call centres can go away as fast as they came, localisation could disappear. Sticking power has got to be innovation.”

Negroponte’s conviction and authority on the subject beg the question of what technologies and industries are actually the ways forward. “It’s not only mobile phones or computers, that’s what’s happening right now. It’s so clear to me that the next big things are going to be dominated by biotechnology and human genomics; essentially the marriage between IT and healthcare. One of our faculty members Joe Jacobson has done groundbreaking research in using wireless technology to communicate directly with cells in the body.

“Believe me, the future is biotechnology, get ready for it,” he concludes. And with that Negroponte departs, ushered out of the room by busy colleagues to his next assignment on the next floor.

By John Kennedy