When Nicholas Negroponte invented the touchscreen (in the 70s), the press overwhelmed him with criticism. More or less the same thing happened again in the 90s, when he predicted that soon we would "buy books directly from the internet". That's why when someone contradicts him, Negroponte just smiles and waits for a few decades to pass. And that's also why, when he says things like "We'll be able to learn French by swallowing a pill", it is worth suspending our disbelief and taking a minute to listen.
74 years old, co-founder of the Mit Media Lab and its director of 20 years' standing, this autumn Mr Negroponte was a guest at the World Business Forum in Milan, where he gave a speech that effectively summarises his life work and future goals. Goals that he describes, without any fear of sounding farfetched, as having to do with "the future of this world". "At Mit, we do things that are not yet on the market and that seem ridiculous," he says. "Today, everyone talks about AI and machine learning. In our laboratories, we have been studying these phenomena since the early fifties". Nowadays, his new obsession is biotech, which he regards as "the new digital technology". Especially miomechatronics, that is, cybernetic technology used to reproduce and improve the physical abilities of living organisms. Hence a pill to learn French.
"Joseph Jacobson, the MIT Media Lab man who invented e-ink (the electronic ink of e-books), is now studying a way to send the brain concentrated doses of artificial intelligence through pills (yes, those tablets we take to cure a headache). We are looking for ways to interact directly with the neurons, reaching the brain from within and not through the eyes, which have become outdated instruments.
"We are looking for ways to interact directly with the neurons, reaching the brain from within and not through the eyes, which have become outdated instruments."
Clearly, he is aware of the extraordinary nature of this statement: "It's ridiculous, I know, but just try to think what you would have said in the 1990s if someone had asked you to consider a world without CDs or video recorders, without shops, offices and devices", something that is now in fact happening. "Imagine a world without nations, made only of cities with a single language. Things that are difficult to imagine do happen. I asked my students at MIT if anyone intended to buy a car. Nobody raised their hand. In the sixties, everyone wanted a car; it was a symbol of freedom".
Negroponte's main objectives are perfectly in line with the global visions of free education and free internet access for everyone, worldwide. He believes that "children are our most valuable natural resource", and imagines a "Mathland" in which children of six learn subjects such as coding; "not to find work, but because programming teaches us to think, or better, it helps us understand how the thought process works".
Finally, his greatest objective: universal connectivity, which he believes should be a human right" and, as such, free and guaranteed by a body independent of any individual nation. "This is a project worth 10 billion dollars, not 450 billion; in other words, the amount the world's industries will spend over the next five years on infrastructure". In short, it can be done. Take the word of someone who has been to the future and back.