Even as a youngster growing up in New York City in the 1950s, it was clear that Nicholas Negroponte would find a way to combine his love and aptitude for art and mathematics.
When he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961 to study architecture, the field used extremely primitive computer graphics to do its modeling. Although the birth of the personal computer was still a decade away, Negroponte saw a wider potential for the new machines as tools, not only for industrial design but also for personal creativity.
Today, he credits his education in architectural design for preparing him to become an innovator in the development of sophisticated human-computer interface systems.
"I found that architecture training [as contrasted with] computer science training, made you much more daring. You didn't solve problems, which engineers do, but you asked questions and you would keep pushing the envelope." Negroponte was passionate about the many ways that research into human/computer interface lay at the intersection of art and mathematics.
That passion was shared by Jerome Wiesner, MIT's president at the time. After Negroponte joined the MIT faculty, the two became friends as well as colleagues in the MIT Architecture Machine Group which Negroponte founded in 1967. Years later, as Wiesner neared retirement, he confided his desire for a lab devoted to the research and development of the human/computer interface. Negroponte immediately offered to build it for him.
Funding poured in and the MIT Media Lab opened its doors in 1985. Its mission was to create practical advances in new media technology while honoring both artistic imagination as well as the free and playful exchange of ideas.
The first project looked at the future of computer graphics as something more consumer oriented and driven by a much bigger market.
Negroponte and his colleagues also experimented with combining consumer-based display technology in ways that have become a familiar feature of today's laptop computers. "It was considered quite outrageous," says Negroponte, remembering the strident objections over using colors in displays.
In fashioning the intellectual culture at the Media Lab, Negroponte wanted its artists, scientists and educators to develop technologies that they themselves would use. "My point was that the innovation in computers would come from the creative users, not just from the science. For example, experimental musicians might naturally wish to push the envelope in audio signal processing," he says. "And people who were interested in new media could innovate in digital television technology."
Negroponte wanted the Media Lab to be "… a place you could come, and do research and advanced applications in the same place."
The recipe worked. Under Negroponte's direction, the MIT Media Lab became the leading computer science lab for new media, making computers more user-friendly and far more capable as tools for creativity and the expressive imagination.
One laptop per child
In 2000, Negroponte left the Media Lab to start "One Laptop Per Child." The non-profit group designed, and is now trying to get, a rugged, affordable laptop Internet-connected computer into the hands of every child in the world, especially in developing nations.
With one and a half million laptops already distributed around the globe, Negroponte has seen what his latest project can do for children, their families and their communities.
"In Peru, we have found that as many as 50 percent of the kids, many in remote villages, are teaching their parents how to read and write" says Negroponte. Worldwide, schools report that their 'connected' children have fewer discipline problems, their parents become more involved in the children's education and kids often literally run to school.
"That kind of impact is extraordinarily heartwarming to me," adds Negroponte, with a smile.
It's all a part of a life's work for Nicholas Negroponte, a world class innovator who is making a positive difference by saying "let's brainstorm a better way - together."