Q&A With Alex Klein ’08
Co-Founder, Kano Computing

alex-larger-3Many people have never heard of Kano or Raspberry Pi.
Kano is a $99 computer kit, designed for all ages, all over the world. It’s based on simple steps, physical computing, and play—a bit like Lego. You plug in the pieces, bring a computer to life, play with it on the command line, then start making games.

The “brain” of the Kano is a wonderful circuit board called Raspberry Pi, invented 18 months ago in Cambridge, UK—where I was doing my master’s. I got to know Raspberry Pi’s founder—he had invented the Linux board in order to get a generation of kids into computer science, but it was being used predominantly by experienced hackers, pros, engineers for intense projects. It was totally inaccessible to normal people. My cofounders and I thought homebrew technology should be for everyone.

How did you get interested in do-it-yourself computers?
Throughout college I dabbled in technology and design, and wrote for various publications. During Occupy Wall Street, I was embedded with the protestors in Zucotti Park, for New York magazine. Huddled in a tent in the rain, I asked one of the protestors why, if his anti-corporatism was for real, he couldn’t keep his hands off his iPhone and Macbook. Why not organize the movement with open-source tools? He told me the world of “hacking,” “DIY computing,” “Linux” was too arcane and complicated, only accessible to hackers in Silicon Valley, and intentionally so. It got me thinking—is the future really going to be designed by Apple in California, and made in China? No way.

I also recall a class with Mr. Das, in which he first explained how any information could theoretically be represented in binary, the simplest of elements: either a yes, or a no. And Mr. Tulp’s class, “Modes of Order and Disorder,” focused on how humans navigate the external and internal world by synthesizing and combining inputs, crystallizing “order” out of “disorder.” Computing and code education has been taught like a foreign language, but badly. We should adopt a more experiential approach—connected to play.

Who is the target market for this?
The youngest person to make the kit was 6; the oldest was 81.

What do you find most exciting and challenging about your work?
I work with a group of insanely talented people from seven different countries—engineers, designers, mathematicians, filmmakers, etc. Keeping up with them while organizing the business around the most fruitful principles—commercial and creative—is a big challenge. I’ve also had to improve my own programming prowess.

How widespread will these build-it-yourself computers be?
We don’t want this to be a tech toy for rich kids. We’ve developed the kit with young people, artists, and educators in Nairobi, Freetown, Johannesburg, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. The future of computing is abundance, affordability, and almost ubiquitous connectivity. Internet is everywhere. And open-source—free, non-proprietary, editable by all—software is becoming the new standard. For an emerging generation of digital natives in places like South Africa, India, and China, “lifestyle” tech (iPhones) won’t go far enough to solve local problems. Kano wants to provide a powerful, accessible, intuitive toolkit for anyone who wants to create technology, not just consume it.

You’ve made ten times your target through Kickstarter. Where will the money go?
First, to making kits for our Kickstarter backers. The rest we’ll use for research and development, to improve the performance and intuitiveness of Kano, as well as bring its projects to the web and mobile. We’ve developed a new way for beginners to start coding games and music right away by dragging and connecting visual blocks, blocks that output real code, like Python and Javascript.

What do you think about the new, widespread campaign to get kids to learn coding, hourofcode.org?
Love the code.org guys. It’s important that all of us gain at least a passing familiarity with computational thinking and code, the way that we all learn basic arithmetic. Concepts like iteration, recursion, and algorithmic problem-solving all sound complicated but are actually dead simple—six-year-olds get it immediately if you use a human voice. “If this, then that.” The problem is, people put coding, “digital literacy, STEM, STEAM” etc. on a Mark Zuckerberg pedestal.

Do you remember your first computer? What was it like?
It was a Dell Laptop, blue and plastic-y. It wasn’t actually mine, but my father’s. The first website I ever visited was a bunch of dancing hamsters. I installed tons of games, got tons of viruses, cleaned them, hacked the games, replaced the graphics card, broke it, got a new desktop, broke that one too, and eventually got my own laptop. Since then I’ve been using it essentially as a blank canvas or wall to throw things at. It’s astonishing the amount of power and possibility we have, it’s just a matter of unlocking it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.