Robotics

Zuckerberg-backed US school teaches coding with robotics kits designed by Chinese farmer’s son

AltSchool, a Silicon Valley education start-up, is one of 20,000 schools worldwide that use robotics kits designed in China by Makeblock

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 8:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 10:50am

Makeblock is a Shenzhen based robotics start-up that is little known outside its field, but for the children at more than 20,000 schools worldwide, their introduction to coding may come from playing with the company’s Lego-like robotics kits.

One of those schools is AltSchool, the Silicon Valley education start-up founded by a former Google executive and backed by investors including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Unlike ready-made robots, Makeblock’s do-it-yourself kits have to be assembled and the students can then control them by writing a program.

“The US kids can’t tell any difference between the robots that are designed by Chinese or US engineers,” Wang Jianjun, 32, founder and chief executive of Makeblock, said in an interview in Shenzhen, where the company has about 400 employees.

Makeblock is among the Chinese start-ups riding the wave of interest and demand for robotics education, which is integral to equipping the workforce of tomorrow with necessary skills. China has made the development of artificial intelligence – an advanced form of machine science – a national priority as it continues to push the economy toward one led by science and technology.

The International Federation of Robotics expects sales of 3 million robots for education and research – double that number if toy and hobby robots are counted – in the three years through 2018.

“China is now actively promoting AI development and STEAM education can serve that purpose, so I think the authorities will give their support,” said Wang, who was born into a farming family in rural Anhui province and didn’t get his hands on a robot until the age of 20 as part of a college competition. STEAM refers to science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.

 

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Makeblock’s products are sold in over 140 countries and sales have surged from US$435,000 in 2013, when it began production, to US$18 million last year, according to the company. Of that, 70 per cent are derived from overseas markets. Next year will see “big growth” in the business and Wang expects the number of program users to climb to 3 million this year versus 70,000 last year.

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Makeblock raised 200 million yuan (US$30.3 million) for its series-B funding round in March and plans to close its next round of financing early next year, Wang said.

For now, to further spread the word of robotics, the company is sponsoring robotics competitions such as one held recently in Shenzhen, where 14-year-old middle school student Kimi Chen and his team took part in a robotic version of dodge ball.

“It is fantastic to make and control the robots by ourselves,” Chen said. “I feel the magic of technology and know how to cooperate with my team members.”