Skoolbot has been chosen winner of the first-ever international botathon, organized by VentureBeat. The bot, which helps students using Google Classroom monitor grades, homework, and communication, was made by Liam McKinley of Great Falls, Virginia.
McKinley was not physically onstage, but he did join a crowd of more than 150 in San Francisco through a roving video robot. Other members of Team Skoolbot include family friend Miko Borys and the boy’s father, John.
Hugh Cameron of Melbourne, Australia, creator of a bot that quickly responds to emails, won the popular vote.
Results were announced Wednesday during MobileBeat, a two-day gathering of chatbot and artificial intelligence companies and thought leaders.
“The way [Google Classroom] organizes information could definitely be improved upon and with this you don’t have to go digging through the various threads for your homework assignment,” McKinley said.
Impact is also important to McKinley, who believes Skoolbot will help students who have a phone but don’t have reliable internet access at home.
Skoolbot is due out in the fall.
“I’m very supportive of what he’s doing, and I think he’s come up with a real opportunity,” said John McKinley, who has built hardware, software, and battle robots with his son. “We’re going to support him in the build out and full launch of this thing in the upcoming school year.”
John McKinley has acted as an investor and advisor to startups and as chief technology officer at General Electric, AOL, and Merrill Lynch.
Liam was given the bot bug by Ben Lamm, CEO of Conversable, his father said, but he’s quick to point out who made Skoolbot happen.
“It was Liam’s team,” he said. “He came up with the idea and got us motivated to do it.”
About 250 bot enthusiasts, spread across 10 time zones, created 60 bots during VentureBeat’s international botathon. Competitions were held July 9-10 in San Francisco, New York, Melbourne, and Tel Aviv. A fifth competition was also held for interested participants anywhere in the world.
Skoolbot allows students using natural language to access Google Classroom, which McKinley uses at The Potomac School to do things like get homework assignments, check test scores, or reach teachers and classmates. More than half of all U.S. students with laptops use Chromebooks and Google products.
Judges for the final competition, which was held via Google Hangouts Tuesday, were Phil Libin, an investor in bots from General Catalyst; SmarterChild creator Robert Hoffer; and Alfred Lin, an investor at Sequoia Capital.
“[McKinley’s] pitch was the best, by far the best. It was very clear what he was trying to do, it was simple, it was a true bot,” Lin said.
Each team was given three minutes to pitch their bot idea to the judges, and judges were given three minutes to ask questions.
“I don’t think we gave him special points for being young,” Libin said. “The guy’s age was relevant only in the sense that it made him a credible user. He wasn’t impressive for his age, he was generally impressive. The fact that he was 15 made him credible, like, ‘Oh, yeah he knows what he’s talking about. he uses it’.”
Judges awarded runner up honorable mention to New York botathon winner Happy Tenant, which allows landlords to receive repair or service requests from tenants, and San Francisco winner Bottender, which lets people order with SMS inside restaurants. Read about all six finalists here.
A winner and finalists were chosen based on functionality of the bot and on what judges believed people will actually use versus potential for monetization.
“The use case is real,” Hoffer said, acknowledging the fact that the primary mode of communication for the majority of young people is chat and SMS. “It came out of the pain of using the interface provided to them on the web by Google.”
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Updated 2:15 a.m. July 14 to include more information about Liam and John McKinley.
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