Startups Aim to Demystify Computing

Startups Aim to Demystify Computing

BEN ROONEY

Dec. 4, 2013 3:40 p.m. ET

Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s certainly how most people see the workings of their electronic devices. An iPad is more powerful than a 1990s supercomputer, yet that power remains mainly hidden behind the magician’s curtain of the touch screen, accessible only through applications and programs written by others.Two U.K. hardware projects hope to change that, aiming to reboot our relationship with—and understanding of—the technology around us.

One, a London-based startup called Kano, is riding a wave of publicity as it raises funds to ship a $99 kit that lets people build their own computers.

The company has tapped a rich seam. Having gone to Kickstarter, the crowdfundingplatform which is almost de rigueur for hardware projects, seeking to raise $100,000 in 30 days, it has topped $1 million in preorders. The Kano kit will go into commercial production next year.

“We live in a world now where we have infinite creative capacity—capacity that would have been inconceivable to people who lived 150 years ago—even 50 years ago,” said Alex Klein, one of the co-founders of Kano. “I can express myself but only within the limits set by the software.”

For example, he explained, when you take a picture on your smartphone and modify it using Instagram, you can modify it only in the ways that Instagram allows you to. “There is a further level of expression that is denied to almost everyone—I can’t change the underlying rule set,” he said.

For Mr. Klein, changing the rule set is another way of saying “learning to code.” He is highly critical of efforts to date.

“The way we teach programming today is like a foreign language, as opposed to teaching it as we would an art class, or an English class or a theater class,” he said. For Mr. Klein, a line of code can be as creative as a stanza.

Sitting at the heart of the Kano kit is the work of the second company. Raspberry Pi is a $25 credit-card-size, fully functioning computer. Mr. Klein’s team bundles a Raspberry Pi with a keyboard and other hardware that lets it run out of the box without buyers having to add anything else but a monitor. In addition, Kano has also written its own software which he says makes the Raspberry Pi easier to use and more accessible.

That software lets children write their own games. It starts simply, with games like “Snake” and the first computer game, “Pong.” Then it builds up to more advanced games like “Minecraft,” where the software lets Kano users write code that generates and populates the Minecraft world. They are not just playing Minecraft, they are writing it.

Mr. Klein has taken the devices into schools in deprived areas of London. He said the results were hugely positive.

“We get kids saying things like ‘We made a computer, we are superkids. This is amazing, I wish this was my job,’ ” he said.

For Eben Upton, part of the founding team behind the Raspberry Pi, Kano’s aims are just a subset of the bigger ambitions he has for the device, which he said had shipped 2.2 million units to date. His goal is about helping to redress the huge shortfall in engineering skills. “Our mission is to try and increase the diffusion of the ability to think like an engineer to people who are not working in engineering jobs,” he said.

“Those engineering skills are about dismantling problems, breaking them down and solving those little problems, then putting them all back together. That kind of compositional computational thinking is a really valuable skill if you are going to do any kind of job that isn’t purely creative.

“If you are going to be a lawyer or an investment banker or a builder or a plumber—jobs that create value in the economy—all of them benefit from learning to think more rationally.”

He also sees the Raspberry Pi as the way by which much of the huge gender imbalance in computing in a number of countries can be redressed. A 2006 report found that about 25% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science in South Africa went to women; a 2009 Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development report showed only 7% went to women in Belgium.

“There is an age where girls outperform boys at school” in computing and math, Mr. Upton said. “If you get people young enough and get them excited about it, you can stop that detachment from ever occurring.

“Girls and boys do value different things. One of the things you find is emphasizing the creative aspect appeals to girls and at the same time to a lot of boys.”

Mr. Upton said children often rate computer classes as the most boring part of school. “How have we done that?” he wondered. “How have we turned messing about with computers into the most boring thing at school?”

Something needs to be done. The recent Programme for International Student Assessment results measuring the academic performance of young adults made for pretty gloomy reading in many European states, none more so than the U.K. A once-mighty engineering and scientific nation, it failed to make the top 20 in any category. So never has a project that could help reverse the country’s scientific decline been more timely.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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