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Sebastian Thrun: Is education poised to breed the next major moonshot? #AccentureIC2015

From self-driving cars and Google Glass to online universities, Stanford professor and former head of Google X Sebastian Thrun has made quite a name for himself as a leading innovator, especially when it comes to Google’s moonshot projects.

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At The Accenture Innovation Conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Google Glass-clad Stanford professor talked about the importance of moonshots and how organisations can make these out-of-this-world ambitions work to achieve fruitful innovations.

“When I was a child there was a piece of innovation that was always thought impossible: putting a man on the moon. It took the nation and the support of the people to achieve this objective,” he said. That’s the kind of inspiration that has led the German robotics engineer to become one of the world’s most influential innovators. Leading him to develop and experiment with some of the most ambitious technologies out there.

Some initiatives Thrun have been involved in include Google Street View which is now the world largest photo database; Amazon Prime-like drones which can deliver packages to people in remote areas; and Google Glass: the face computer that — even though it failed — is apparently still worn by 10 000 enthusiasts.

Read more: Google’s new pupil: diabetes-detecting contact lenses

Google is also working on a contact lens that measures the glucose levels in your tears. This, Thrun said, is now being produced by a biometrics company in Switzerland which is said to be the first non-evasive diabetes device to change the lives hundreds of thousands of people.

‘Moonshots are like mountains’

“Almost everything that’s interesting hasn’t been invented yet,” Thrun said. “This is why moonshots are possible.”

He explained that ambitious tasks such as those conjured up in the Google X labs should be seen as hiking up a mountain. Reminiscing about the time he and his team of Stanford students entered their self-driving car concept into the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, he said: “The mountain as an objective was clear but the path in overcoming it wasn’t. So failure and learning were critical. All these mistakes had to be made in order to climb the mountain.”

This was about 10 years ago and after trial and error his team ended up winning the US$2-million prize money for driving autonomously over 212 km through the desert. Today, Google’s arguably the leader in bringing self-driving cars closer to commercial reality.

Read more: Google’s new 100% self-driving electric car: no wheel, no pedals. Order it like a taxi

The same principles that made up the foundations of the Google X Lab, Thrun explains, could be applied to foster innovation. They are as follows:

  1. Clear objective: The entire team needs to be on the same page otherwise failure is inevitable. “Teams have to climb the same mountain if there’s lack of clarity of the mission you’ll definitely fail.”
  2. Total autonomy: “Don’t talk to anybody once you’ve received your objective,” he said. Your focus shouldn’t be influenced by other people because execution would take too long, he adds.
  3. Rapid iteration: Inspired by the Lean Startup Methodology and “Silicon Valley culture”, he said that failing fast is critical for the learning process. “This is critical to understand one’s mistakes,” he argued.
  4. Small teams: “We didn’t necessarily hire the world’s best people,” he shared. “Anyone can solve great problems.”

Next stop: education.

Graduating the world’s 3-billion internet users

Drones, artificial intelligence and robotics are miles away from education, but much closer than we think. “Education is not a tech field but it’s the most important field there is,” Thrun said. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have taken off over the last few years, ever since guys like Salman Khan founded Khan Academy, educating millions of people around the globe — one computer to the other.

Read more: Could MOOCs help democratise education in emerging markets?

And so, believing that education is the next industry poised for major innovation, today Thrun is working on Udacity — an online university that has over 3-million students from across the globe.

When he founded the elearning company back in 2012, it was with the aim of making education part of people’s lives without interrupting daily routines.

We ended saying that it’s time to reimagine what education should look like in the 21st century, with today’s tools. Whatever you learn will change within the next seven years. Technology today is moving faster than ever. Education should therefor become a daily habit. But people are too busy, so we decided to build the product for your tablet or smartphone.

Something that would be reiterated by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Thrun explained that education is becoming way too expensive at a time when it should be becoming more accessible. This is why Udacity presents over 60 courses from Java programming to responsive web design and building a startup.

One of Sebastian Thrun’s slides shows the rapid rise of college tuition fees in the US
Udacity has also developed the Nanodegree which is a certificate awarded upon finishing some of its courses. The certificate is recognised and sometimes built by AT&T, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook and Google among many other tech industry leaders.

“Udacity is a university built by Silicon Valley,” he said. “Education is now run by companies and not by professors.”

Read more: How people are using e-learning and crowdlearning to change education

Udacity reduced the cost of an online master’s degree in Computer Science to US$6 600 from a ridiculous US$45 000, which is another milestone worth noting. So far this year there are about 2 500 students already enrolled in this programme, Thrun noted.

He added that he’s proud to see that there are over a hundred thousand Udacity students in South Africa and that he hopes to one day reach the world’s 3-billion internet users. Given the massive demand for learning, this moonshot shouldn’t seem too farfetched as, say, putting a computer on millions of people’s faces.

Though, for reasons — from social and economical nuances to infrastructural limitations — it is.

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