Udacity-Democratizing Education | Sebastian Thrun

About Sebastian Thrun Founder of Udacity

Sebastian Thrun is a scientist, educator, inventor, and entrepreneur.

He is the founder, chairman, and president of Udacity, whose mission is to democratize education. Udacity focuses on affordable, lifelong learning to give people the needed skills to get a new job or advance their career. Today, the company has over 4 million students worldwide and more than 11,000 enrolled in its Nanodegree program, which is built with companies like Google, Facebook, AT&T and GitHub, and whose graduates land jobs at world-leading employers.

Thrun is also the founder of X (previously Google X), where he led the development of the self-driving car, Google Glass, and other projects.

Thrun spent several years as a professor at Stanford University where he led the Stanford Racing Team, whose robot “Stanley” won the DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley is now on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Thrun completed his education in Germany with a master’s degree and a PhD from the University of Bonn. While at Bonn, he led a team of roboticists who developed the mobile robot “Rhino,” which won second prize at an international robot competition organized by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

Thrun is the recipient of several awards including the inaugural Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Education in 2012. His work has also been highlighted in the “50 Best Inventions of 2010” by TIME magazine. Thrun was listed as the #4 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy and the 5th most creative person in business by Fast Company.

 

Interview Transcript:

Alan
Welcome back. I’m here today with Sebastian Thrun. He is the founder of Udacity. Sebastian, welcome to today’s show.

Sebastian
It’s great to be here.

Alan
So Sebastian for the listeners, can you take us through your background of how you got where you are today?

Sebastian
Well born and raised in Germany, in all Europe, I got my PhD in computer science in 2009, and five in Germany, and then became a professor first at Carnegie Mellon University. And then at Stanford University, but four years ago decided I give up tenure and joined Google, they are founded an institute called Google X works on things like self driving cars, and Google Glass, my projects, and then found my way into Udacity, which is a startup company that seeks to democratize education.

Alan
So as you as you’re going back through your timeline, and you know, it’s a very unique timeline, just starting into Google X and, and you know, from moving from education, but what are some of most favorite projects or experiences that you had, prior to adaptability.

Sebastian
We actually want to start, maybe the best known is in truth hasn’t five my Stanford team and was teaching at Stanford at the time, participate in what’s called the DARPA Grand Challenge, which was a an autonomous robot race. The task was to build self driving cars 10 years ago, they would navigate a desert terrain. And they were about to enter different teams competing. With a lot of luck, my team one infecting go to the N Space Museum and admire Stanley the car, it’s the only cars actually parked in and Space Museum of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. And from that we invented the city official make self driving cars. Now at the time, people laughed about this, like people thought it was impossible. And today when he talks about self driving cars, but back in the day, it was a novelty. So around 2009, we saw the self driving car project at Google and brought it up to scale.

Alan
I heard it I heard a rumor, and I don’t know if this is true or not. But in the state of California, when they caught wind of self driving cars, they immediately passed a legislation saying you gotta have steering wheels. Is that Is that a true?

Sebastian
So when when I ran the team at Google, we passed legislation that actually pave the way towards completely self driving cars. And more recently, the regulator stepped in and said, We’re gonna have steering wheels, and it’s a big ongoing debate right now, what a self driving car is whether it requires a person behind the wheel to monitor the system, whether the car can drive completely by itself.

Alan
So so let’s let’s move over to audacity then, how many years have you been doing this for and what brought this about?

Sebastian
Well, Udacity started in 2011. When I decided to take my Stanford class on artificial intelligence that was co teaching with a fellow Googler Peter Norvig. They decided to take this online was an unprecedented step. I sent one email to a few friends saying you can take CS two to one artificial intelligence you can take this no free of charge online. And lo and behold, 160,000 students sign up became viral. We were written up in the front page of The New York Times that people were applauding stem for to finally make its curriculum available online free of charge of the 160,000 students 23,000 Finished. So it’s kind of amazing. So as teaching more students in this one class, and I could teach in Stanford’s campus in 10 lifetimes.

Alan
There must have been giving you the distinct impression that you’re onto something here.

Sebastian
Yeah, it started this movie called MOOC mania. MOOCs stands for Massive Open Online Courses. New York Times subsequently declared 2012, the the MOOC, other companies sprung up like Coursera, and edX, in addition to Udacity. And we started thinking about what could be achieved in the world if we could truly democratize education and make it available to everybody. And that’s our mission. We really want to bring education to everybody. We believe that education is the great equalizer. We believe that higher education is amazing in this country, but very inaccessible to most people. And our mission is to make accessible to everybody.

Alan
And when you when you launch Udacity wizard, initially, where’s your partnerships with certain universities or schools? Or did you just say we’re gonna stand completely on our own and let people come to us if they want to engage in our curriculum.

Sebastian
But initially you that’s the department with universities, you had a partnership in California with the California State University system, even still ongoing partnership with Georgia Tech in Georgia. They quickly realized our niche is not to replicate universities. Our niche is lifelong learning. And the type materials our students are most excited about is the kind of stuff that Google and Facebook can make. Why? Because these companies are at the bleeding edge cutting edge of technology. So for example, this year earlier this year, a program called AlphaGo developer to Google, a deep learning program beat the world’s best Go player, which was a major accomplishment in the field of artificial intelligence. The underlying secret sauce is called deep learning. It’s a machine learning method is a set of technologies that allow computers to learn from data. And even before this dysphoric event happened, we had a Google built class on our platform that taught students how to become proficient in deep learning in this battle. But it really means this. And we work with companies like Google and Salesforce, and Amazon and Twitter and others, we can bring the leading edge content onto the market.

Alan
I’m visiting here today with Sebastian Thrun. And I need to take a quick break. And we’ll be right back after these messages.

Alan
Welcome back, I’m here to do with Sebastian Thrun. He is the founder of Udacity and Udacity is a very unique name. Where did it come about?

Sebastian
Well, we felt audacious that day, we found that Udacity and Audacity was taken. So we dropped the a few that Udacity. And we think it’s audacity for you and you assistants for university.

Alan
So that that’s very creative. And I guess, an audacious project that Udacity The name came about. Now, if we look at Udacity today, and when the vision was your first willingness, how was this really, for people with college degrees? Are you focusing on people coming out of high school are what was the initial vision?

Sebastian
Our vision is to tie together education and jobs. So in Udacity, if you come to us, we almost guarantee you a job. In fact, if we can find a job, we are happy to give you your tuition back, we want a very few institutions that give you full tuition refund, if you can’t find a job, I think it’s really important. Because we believe education for us stands not just for self improvement and self advancement, it also stands for your ability to make a productive contribution to society, aka having a career job that you like.

Alan
This is really disruptive. When you look at traditional universities, they they gave you a core curriculum, then you go to specialize major, but Udacity is really focusing on competencies and skills for life, if I understand correctly.

Sebastian
Yeah, and I think we need to rethink education. I think the entire notion of a once in a lifetime, early education is insufficient. In today’s world, today’s average American worker stays in their job for less than five years. But 25% of us already work in kind of on demand type jobs, and society is moving. So fast technology is moving so fast, that you almost have to kind of rethink about education over and over again. And that’s where Udacity comes in. We are very fast, very compact, very focused, and give people skills to work in the tech industry, we also extremely affordable.

Alan
I realize this is a moving target bit about how many students have you enrolled today in your programs.

Sebastian
We are getting close to 5 million students now severe, fairly massive University. We have offices in China, in India, in Middle East, in Europe and in South America.

Alan
And when we look at machine learning, have you built that into a primary core competency for your course curriculums? Or how does that how does that play into the role and the mission for density?

Sebastian
So Udacity offers an entire nanodegree, as we call it, in machine learning, they can take takes about half a year. And it’s a bleeding edge curriculum that teaches students a really, really hot technology. If you go around the valley today and ask companies like Facebook and Google what is the hottest technology on the planet? They tell you it’s machine learning, it’s artificial intelligence. And we teach it with the best teachers on the planet.

Alan
How many classes are you offering?

Sebastian
Currently Udacity offers about 15 nanodegrees, and about 120 different classes. And they’re mostly built by top companies like Salesforce, Google and Amazon.

Alan
This is not an easy program, people coming in have to demonstrate competency in these course curriculums in order to get through.

Sebastian
This correct so learning is I mean, there is no free lunch. I mean, if you want to lose weight, you can just take a pill and lose weight. You’re gonna get smarter, but suddenly we just can’t just take a pill and be smart, but it’s fun. Udacity learning focuses on a one on one mentoring multipath you have to develop the skills and you learn by doing. So it’s not like nutrition university when you’re a professor. It’s more like something you learn by.

Alan
Visiting here today with Sebastian Thrun, he is the founder of a Udacity Sebastian, I need to take another break. And when we come back, I want to jump deeper into the nanodegree of Udacity. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Alan
Welcome back and busy hair day with Sebastian Thrun. And we’ve been talking about Udacity, the school that you found it for online degrees and and in the last segment we mentioned nano degrees and you offer 15 Different nanodegrees. And I want to jump into this area deeper. First of all, for the listeners, what exactly is a nano degree?

Sebastian
Nano degree is a complete new credential, which is much more focused and shorter than exists in degrees. A bachelor degree takes four to six years, a master’s degree one to two years. And then it takes about half a year even part time work. And the idea was that in half a year, you should be able to get a good tech skill and be able to rescale yourself for no job.

Alan
When you look at the 15 degrees give me a it’s a fairly broad spectrum of work machine learning be one degree or how how do you divide these up?

Sebastian
That’s correct. So we see Udacity kind of as a University of Silicon Valley. So we do tech skills. From Android mobile phones, iOS to machine learning, we have one in the works on self driving cars, another one in virtual reality. So if you take bleeding edge technology skills that are in very high demand in Silicon Valley, and turn them into education curriculum.

Alan
Do you find yourself hiring people or enrolling people within? You know, companies with existing jobs? Or do you have a placement program for the graduates to put them into certain companies?

Sebastian
We recruit students from all over the world from all kinds of trades, we have mothers who raise children, we have people from one industry, they want to move to the next we have professional sports people who want to change their careers, and replace them and top companies replace quite a few people and Facebook and Google and other companies. And we assist them in their own job seeking activities. In fact, see, that’s the analogy we Plus Program promises American students a full tuition refund if they and we can’t find them a new job.

Alan
You know, this is not an easy area when you’re when you’re looking at the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. What do you find the professors to teach these classes?

Sebastian
Well, Silicon Valley is full of experts and the companies are working with like the Googles, and so on are extremely eager to work with us because they are all looking for talent. It also turns out the subject matters like machining are really fun. They’re fascinating. They’re amazing. That that really that the best we have in computer science today. So a lot of people in the industry love teaching and love instructing students and it’s a fantastic ecosystem.

Alan
Where do you see the future of Udacity?

Sebastian
Udacity seeks to be a woven institution, as I mentioned, have offices in all continents. We would love to educate 10s if not hundreds of millions of students, our mission Udacity Its mission is to democratize education. We firmly believe that education is the great equalizer. And yes, we believe if you catch a man a fish, he has dinner for the night if we teach him or her how to fish, he or she has dinner for the rest of their life. That’s what we want to do. We want to bring the best education to everybody in the world. So everybody gets a fair chance.

Alan
That conceptually with artificial intelligence someone wants I heard this said before that, you know, as good as we are writing algorithms and getting machines to talk to each other. We’ll never be able to replace the human emotion that goes behind decisions do you what’s your feeling like?

Sebastian
Well, I’m actually quite happy that my machines are not emotional so I don’t want to come to my kitchen and hear from a dishwasher that he fell in love with the refrigerator and doesn’t want the dishes for me anymore. I want machines that have predictable and reliable so when my plane to fly reliably my car my self driving car to drive reliably. So people are your important emotions are humans have emotions that might serve a purpose, but I’d rather not have emotions emerging is what do you.

Alan
See this all going with machine learning in a three to five year window.

Sebastian
I believe that machine learning will make us superhuman gives us capabilities we don’t have today. I’ve worked for a long time and Google Glass and the vision was at Google as for just understand everything we do, and memorize everything we’ve done and help us recognize every person we ever met, and then share the information moves faster than we can can presently do. I think we’re just beginning to understand how we can augment the human brain with machine learning to make it a much, much better machine.

Alan
You do you use quantum physics in this in your course curriculum?

Sebastian
We not using quantum physics partially because I don’t understand it myself. For the computing, I would love to understand it better. But we do stuff, and tenacity that is really in demand. So typically, when you come to us and finish in a degree, you have zero difficulty finding a new job.

Alan
But a new most popular courses with Udacity right now.

Sebastian
Highly popular is Android, we run the only Google approved and certified certification system at Udacity. Here. So when you become an Android programmer, you basically have to work with us. Like they have to work with us. Machine learning is very popular. But we also have a highly popular Introduction to Programming nanodegree, which is not a job seeking and agreed that people can go and learn deep programming, how to pull your website and or augment Python.

Alan
So what if a person wants to get more information on Udacity, where would they go?

Sebastian
They go to the website udacity.com. They download the iPhone or the Android app, and they get started.

Alan
So just for the for the listeners, and currently what is it what is a course run for cost

Sebastian
Udacity charges 200 US dollars per month. And as I mentioned, there’s two options in one option, you get half your tuition back upon just graduation, another option and then we Plus program, you get your full tuition back. So you’re gonna be able to find a job and we help you find a job.

Alan
That’s a very disruptive model saying we’ll give you a full refund. If we don’t place you.

Sebastian
I believe every US universities should do this should actually offer full tuition be fun if their graduates can’t find jobs. The reason why I believe this is it’s just fear. There’s so many students stranded right now that come out of college with enormous college debt. We charge a small fraction from existing courses, our students never needed college loan. And we are absolutely willing to say that we put our money where our mouth is. So if you if you can’t find a job, we give you a tuition back. So either way, our education is to be free to either find a job and the first month’s salary will be able to cover your entire tuition costs, which is typically like 1000 bucks or 2000 bucks. Well, if you can’t find a job, which hasn’t happened, it hasn’t had much yet. And you know what, you give it tuition back.

Alan
Now, so in this in this model food acity. It’s not limited to just English curriculum. There are several languages that are taught.

Sebastian
Yes, we started adapting them localizing as it’s called Udacity to different regions we have because of India and China and so on. We have a Chinese version. Now we have an Arabic speaking version, we have very much access right now with Udacity. In Egypt. We have even a scholarship program for Syrian refugees in Europe so that they can actually move beyond their refugee status and become technology experts. And again, our mission isn’t just to democratize education. We really care about bringing education not just to America.

Alan
Sebastia I appreciate you being on today’s show.

Sebastian
Thank you so much.

 

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This transcript was generated by software and may not accurately reflect exactly what was said.

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Sebastian Thrun on Alan Olsen's American Dreams Radio
Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian Thrun is a scientist, educator, inventor, and entrepreneur.

He is the founder, chairman, and president of Udacity, whose mission is to democratize education. Udacity focuses on affordable, lifelong learning to give people the needed skills to get a new job or advance their career. Today, the company has over 4 million students worldwide and more than 11,000 enrolled in its Nanodegree program, which is built with companies like Google, Facebook, AT&T and GitHub, and whose graduates land jobs at world-leading employers.

Thrun is also the founder of X (previously Google X), where he led the development of the self-driving car, Google Glass, and other projects.

Thrun spent several years as a professor at Stanford University where he led the Stanford Racing Team, whose robot “Stanley” won the DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley is now on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Thrun completed his education in Germany with a master’s degree and a PhD from the University of Bonn. While at Bonn, he led a team of roboticists who developed the mobile robot “Rhino,” which won second prize at an international robot competition organized by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

Thrun is the recipient of several awards including the inaugural Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Education in 2012. His work has also been highlighted in the “50 Best Inventions of 2010” by TIME magazine. Thrun was listed as the #4 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy and the 5th most creative person in business by Fast Company.

Alan Olsen on Alan Olsen's American Dreams Radio
Alan Olsen

Alan is managing partner at Greenstein, Rogoff, Olsen & Co., LLP, (GROCO) and is a respected leader in his field. He is also the radio show host to American Dreams. Alan’s CPA firm resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and serves some of the most influential Venture Capitalist in the world. GROCO’s affluent CPA core competency is advising High Net Worth individual clients in tax and financial strategies. Alan is a current member of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (S.I.E.P.R.) SIEPR’s goal is to improve long-term economic policy. Alan has more than 25 years of experience in public accounting and develops innovative financial strategies for business enterprises. Alan also serves on President Kim Clark’s BYU-Idaho Advancement council. (President Clark lead the Harvard Business School programs for 30 years prior to joining BYU-idaho. As a specialist in income tax, Alan frequently lectures and writes articles about tax issues for professional organizations and community groups. He also teaches accounting as a member of the adjunct faculty at Ohlone College.

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