With his online university Udacity, pioneer Sebastian Thrun wants to democratize knowledge and promote lifelong learning.

Pushing the envelope.

Sebastian Thrun built self-driving cars ten years ago and conducted research for Google and swiss banks. In Additon, the IT Professor wants to share knowledge with everyone through udacity, an online university.
Author: Anja Steinbuch
Photos: Mathew Scott/AUGUST
“Learning needs to be a lifelong process – one that's  much part og your day as brushing your teeth.“
Sebastian Thrun
founder of the online university Udacity
Tanned and lean, with the wiry build of a marathon runner, Sebastian Thrun doesn’t really fit the stereotype of an intellectual Stanford professor. At the young age of 50, he’s on his third high-flying career. And he’s still on the move. Why? “Technology is evolving at an unfathomable ace. If we stand still, we’ll be left behind.” For him, life is a never-ending process of change and an opportunity to constantly push the envelope. If he could, he’d keep jumping off cliffs until he finally learned how to fly. It’s this restlessness that brought Thrun from his hometown of Solingen, Germany to the PhD program at the University of Bonn and then across the Atlantic to a faculty position at the University of Stanford. His hobbyhorses: robotics and artificial intelligence. His first robot, “Rhino”, guided visitors through museums; “Pearl” looked after sick people; “Stanley”, a self-driving car, won a desert race near Las Vegas. Google co-founder Larry Page brought him on board and put him in charge of Google X, Alphabet’s research laboratory. He is one of the most sought-after minds in Silicon Valley. At this point, he could easily live out his days as an author and keynote speaker. But then he wouldn’t be Sebastian Thrun.


With his online university Udacity, pioneer Sebastian Thrun wants to democratize knowledge and promote lifelong learning.
Sebastian Thrun is a star in Silicon Valley. After studying medicine, economics and computer science in Heidelberg and receiving a PhD in Bonn with summa cum laude honors, he went to the US to teach and research at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University. Larry Page brought the prize-winning German to Google X, Alphabet’s blue sky laboratory. Through Udacity, Thrun now serves over three million students. Only five years after its establishment, the online college is already valued at a billion US dollars. Thrun lives and works in Mountain View in the heart of Silicon Valley.
He goes to where change happens: digitization is transforming the economy. Robots calculate, diagnose diseases, steer planes, ships and cars. Disruptive services like Netflix, Spotify, PayPal and Lendico threaten traditional business models. Thrun is convinced: “That’s just the beginning. Disruption is creativity.” That’s why he always goes back to humankind. “Man is the center of our universe,” he notes. “And that’s why any reflection on technologies like artificial intelligence is also a contemplation on the human condition.” Many of these technologies have served two primary purposes: giving people superhuman powers and simplifying their lives. The plow, the tractor, the car, the airplane – they all share that trait. Ongoing digitization and particularly artificial intelligence will take it one step further. “Not only will machines complement and augment people’s motor skills, but they will also perform virtually all their repetitive tasks in the future.”
However, to participate in change from day one and remain in control of our destinies, we have to relearn how to learn. In the IT industry, for example, knowledge is replaced every five to seven years. The average American changes jobs every four to five years. “But to find a new job, people have to educate themselves.”
Thrun wants to democratize knowledge with Udacity, his online university. He started online classes in 2011. “Just imagine if companies desperately looking for web developers, programmers or mathematicians across the world finally had all the highly skilled employees they need. Wouldn’t it make sense that everyone would get involved?” Thrun’s solution: classes and curricula developed by Internet businesses such as Google and Facebook, software providers such as Salesforce and Alteryx and conventional manufacturers like BMW or Mercedes-Benz. When they’re done, graduates receive “nanodegrees”. Udacity’s nanodegree programs cost 200 dollars a month on average. For an extra 100 dollars a month, students can also be guaranteed a job – or have their full tuition refunded. The market certainly seems to appreciate Thrun’s basic idea. The nanodegrees co-developed by Udacity and industry partners are highly popular with companies and graduates alike. Being a self-organized learning program, Udacity doesn’t give graduates university degrees, but rather digital certificates (“badges”) that they can post next to a resume on their LinkedIn profile to showcase their new skills.
Logo Udacity
Over 4 million students are now enrolled at online university Udacity.(Source: t3n). Over 160.000 people across the world spontaneously signed up for the first course that Thrun put online as a test (Source: Wired, November 2016).
“Learning needs to be a lifelong process – one that’s as much part of your day as showering or brushing your teeth. One credential just won’t cut it anymore,” summarizes Thrun. And it’s fun, too, he promises. Education shouldn’t be the preserve of a small elite. “We think education should be less like a Rolex and more like Ikea furniture: we want to effectively educate as many people as possible.”
The clock is ticking. The challenges we still face are inestimable: “99 percent of all interesting things haven’t been invented yet,” affirms Thrun, specifically including traditional fields of research such as medicine, biology and chemistry. Indeed, he is convinced “that our life expectancy will double once more in the foreseeable future.” That’s a feat that we’ve managed once before in less than 300 years – through lifelong learning and the dissemination of knowledge about everything from basic mechanics to good hygiene practices.
Thrun’s mission is also humanitarian: he hopes Udacity will soften the edge of the digital transformation. “The demand is huge. People are taking charge of their own careers and depending less on government handouts,” he says. Everyone has to invest in their careers themselves, he notes. That, too, is part of the democratization of knowledge.

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