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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 14:41 GMT

Business: The Economy

Guru predicts web surge

Electrolux's intelligent fridge is just a start, Mr Negroponte says

More than one billion people will be on the internet by the end of next year, says internet guru Nicholas Negroponte.

And he says even more "intelligent products" will be connected to the web.

Mr Negroponte, co-founder and director of Media Laboratory in the world-leading science university, the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), said: "The forecasters have made some extraordinary underestimates.

"The digital world is moving so fast that before the end of next year, we will see a billion people on the internet."

He went on: "Part of that explosion will happen in developing countries." And he added that most forecasters underestimated the likely take-up in developing countries.

"Certain countries we do not expect to be digital will become very digital very fast," Mr Negroponte said.

Intelligent fridges and doorknobs

Even more products than people will be connected to the web.

Earlier this year, Electrolux announced an intelligent fridge, that allows online ordering of food.

This is just the thin end of the wedge, Mr Negroponte says, with smaller products, that are replaced more frequently, such as toys, likely to lead the way.

"How often do you buy a fridge?" he said. "Think of Barbie dolls. There are likely to be more Barbie dolls connected to the internet in ten years than Americans," he said.

Everyday products such as doorknobs could be embedded with computers, he predicted.

"Clearly if that doorknob could see, listen, speak, it could do a great deal more than an ordinary doorknob. If it sees me walking up to the door with my groceries, it can open the door... it might even be security-conscious and ask me my mother's maiden name," he said.

The speed of change will be determined by the cost of telecoms, the cost of computers and the technologies to make payments.

Founding technologies

Mr Negroponte was a founder of MIT's Media Laboratory, a leader in the field of digital video and multimedia.

News of a link-up between Cambridge University in the UK and MIT has fuelled hopes that the latter's entrepreneurial spirit will be transplanted across the Atlantic.

The two universities will create the Cambridge-MIT institute, an education and research enterprise that has the financial backing of the UK Treasury for 80% of its $135m (£84m) budget for the next five years.

The balance of the funding will be raised from British industry.

MIT graduates have founded more than 4,000 firms.

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