Knowledge is power and it belongs to the people, says online education pioneer and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun.
Sebastian Thrun’s work has given cars the ability to drive themselves and literally changed the way people see. Now he’s turning his attention to his passion project: democratising learning through online education.
In 2011, when he opened up a course on artificial intelligence to anybody in the world who might be keen, Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun probably didn’t expect what was set off.
The story of how 160,000 people from 190 countries (two-thirds of them outside of the US) took CS211 – An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence is well-known.
As well as the staggering interest, of note was the age span (between 10 and 70) and the striking fact that nobody from within the venerable Silicon Valley feeder school was in the top 400.
Thrun is co-founder and CEO of online education organisation Udacity, which started off with massive open online courses (MOOCs).
Udacity changed tack from the MOOC model after it didn’t live up to the hype (The New York Times proclaimed 2012 “year of the MOOC”, for example). Completion rates were woeful and the founder conceded in 2013 that the vision of education-for-all via the internet didn’t work out exactly as planned.
While Thrun has moved on from these, he is still massively enthusiastic about the prospect of online education to change the world for the better.
Udacity still offers free courses, with a reported 100,000 students a month taking these, though the focus is on ‘nano degrees’ developed for companies such as Autodesk, Google and AT&T.
These are $US199 or $US299 a month (still cheap as chips compared to Stanford) and used by roughly 15,000 payers a month.
As of January, the ‘$299 Nanodegree Plus’ option (for machine learning engineers, iOS developers, Android developers and senior web developers) comes with a money-back guarantee for graduates who can’t find a relevant job within six months.
The number of career changes per career is growing, and the ability to re-tool, especially in a way recognised by some of the world’s tech giants, has an obvious appeal.
The approach to making education more relevant involves using learning data and artificial intelligence to make the experience more engaging and likely to be completed. Thrun says one of his goals is “to make learning as addictive as a video game.”
Thrun’s tinkering – which led to a career as one of the most famous engineers of his time – expressed itself in the early days through video games.
According to an in-depth account by Wired of the Stanford University team’s triumph in the 2005 DARPA Grand challenge, the German-born academic and entrepreneur was frustrated by the high price of an arcade machine at a local pub in Hannover.
Aged 12 and not willing to fork out 20 pfennig for three lives at a racing game, he decided to program his own, using a 4 MHz, 16 kilobyte Northstar home computer.
After later finishing up an ace PhD student at University of Bonn, achievements such as a world-first robotic tour guide gained the attention of US universities, and he ended up at Carnegie Mellon.
Following this, Thrun began at Stanford in 2003. Though he hadn’t considered autonomous vehicles before, his frustration at progress while watching the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge (no car made it further than 12 km of the 240 km Mojave Desert course) saw him take on the problem.
The probabilistic robotics approach (combining elements of statistics and behaviour-based robotics) of Thrun’s team helped its ‘Stanley’ Volkswagen triumph in the 2005 Darpa event. Stanley now resides in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Following this, Thrun led Google’s autonomous car and Street View efforts, founded the company’s Google X lab ‘moonshot factory’, and led development of its Google Glass project. He left Google X in 2014.
After spending so long working at the forefront of technology, he is both sobering and optimistic in his comments about where it’s headed.
Tech will make us stronger
The pace of artificial development is so fast that he sees it trumping human abilities, and quickly. Elsewhere he has written that this will see fewer people able to make meaningful contributions to the world, and only a small population able to competently command technology and AI.
However, he tells us that it will also make everyone better able to extend their abilities. As others have pointed out, we can race with, rather than race against, the machine.
As for where his current project will fit in, Thrun has the attitude you often find among intensely brilliant people who devote their lives to moonshots.
After the ‘pivot’ (in Silicon Valley-speak) away from their MOOC origins and into something more like a provider of vocation-oriented education programs, Udacity announced last year that it has become profitable.
Last November, following a series D raising, the company achieved a valuation of US$1 billion.
This is only the beginning, according to its co-founder. He believes that if it can successfully “democratise education” then it can double the world’s GDP.
Yes, he could safely be called more optimistic than most, but his record in helping change the world is also safely above average.
In Sebastian Thrun’s words
And now, a quick Q&A.
create: What do you find so appealing about online education?
Sebastian Thrun: It’s the idea of democratising education that is most appealing. Giving access to education to every person on this planet is an amazing problem to solve. It is truly transformational. Imagine the impact we could have by doing this and the millions of lives we could affect.
create: How has online education changed since you started Udacity?
ST: When we started it was all about MOOCs, which were passively watching videos online. Now, it’s more about combining learning with individualised services like grading, reviews, mentoring and even placing people into jobs.
create: Do we need t be concerned about super-intelligence?
ST: I believe AI will make people super-intelligent, not just machines. We will be able to remember everything, recognise everyone, do everything and live every experience known to humanity. People pitch AI against us – it’ll really make us stronger.
create: What advice would you give to a young would-be engineer?
ST: Be passionate, stick with it and don’t let yourself be talked down. Only 1 per cent of interesting things have been invented yet. Invent the next 1 per cent!