Saturday, August 05, 2006

Media Lab Asia and the OLPC

Nicholas Negroponte, the man behind the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative is also the founder of MIT's famed Media Lab which partnered with the Indian government to set up its Asian branch (Media Lab Asia) on Indian soil. This collaboration proved to be bitter and, consequently, short-lived. The man who pulled the plug on it was none other than Arun Shourie, the then Minister of IT and Telecom. Here's a BusinessWeek story from 2003:

... Media Labs Asia ran for a year solely on the $13.5 million seed money provided by the Indian government, with MIT contributing nothing yet calling the shots on the lab's project, say insiders. Much of the money went toward paying the lab's staff, as if they were international civil servants. ... Few MIT professors visited the labs at any of IIT's branches, say students and professors at the institutions. "MIT didn't add much value," says a source close to the project ... MIT's plan of getting funding for India was flawed from the get-go. Multinationals like Microsoft (MSFT ), Intel (INTC ), and Cisco (CSCO) already have huge research and development operations in India, so they likely saw little value in sponsoring other research projects that don't relate directly to their businesses. ... [T]he IIT professors whose job it was to oversee the projects declared that MIT added no value in research or in corporate sponsorships. And it was revealed that MIT asked the Indian government to pay $1.7 million for the use of the MIT name. That was perhaps the last straw.

Could India's recent rejection of the OLPC have something to do with the country's earlier experience with the Media Lab Asia? ZDNet-UK speculates:

As with MIT Media Lab Europe, which set up shop in Dublin in 2000 only to close its shutters in 2005, MIT Media Lab Asia (Mumbai, 2001-5) attracted government funding, criticism and then the bum's rush. According to one Indian researcher who talked to us, the bad feelings left behind are still strong enough to render Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder and lead wolf on OPLC, persona non grata within the subcontinent — and guarantee the rejection of any project with his name attached.

Let's just follow up on the first sentence of this quote. Just what was the record of Media Lab Europe, set up in Ireland? Here's ZDNet-UK again:

The Irish public auditor found that after five years and nearly 50 million euros, most of which was public money, the place had produced just 24 scientific papers and 12 useless patents. While it was running, MIT Media Lab Europe "refused to tell ministers how many people it employed, what they were paid, or to provide audited accounts", according to the Sunday Times, but it did manage to award them substantial severance payments when time ran out.

The ZDNet-UK article ends with a rather snarky advice to the countries that are considering buying a million laptops from Negroponte's OLPC:

For an experiment of this size and expense, one with the potential to set education agendas for millions, due diligence is required. As they say in the adverts, past performance is no guarantee of future results — but sometimes, it can be most educational.

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Thanks to the Unofficial OLPC Website's blog for the link to the ZDNet-UK article.


  1. Anonymous said...


    You're welcome for the link to ZDNet. Keep an eye on OLPC News as I'm keeping an eye on the OLPC program.

    And Shourie kept an eye on Negroponte. Payback was a b*tch.