Does the Future Hold the Prospect of Outsourcing the Human Brain?

Bold thinker Sebastian Thrun is receiving a Smithsonian Award this week, so he regaled us with some of his ideas for changing the world

Stanford University Racing Team leader Sebastian Thrun celebrates with his team mates as their entry named "Stanley" is the first to cross the finish line at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) 2005 Grand Challenge in Primm, Nevada. (©Gene Blevins/Reuters/Corbis)

Inveterate inventor and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, the man behind Google Glass, the self-driving car and recipient of Smithsonian magazine's 2012 Ingenuity Award will add yet another Smithsonian medal to his collection this week.

The German-born Thrun, 48, will receive the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal Thursday June 11, during a naturalization ceremony that welcomes 15 new citizens, recognizing his achievements in business through invention and innovation as well as commitment to education. A part time researcher at Stanford, he left Google in 2014, where he was a vice president and fellow, after creating Udacity, an online education company in 2012.

Thrun’s association with the Smithsonian includes demonstrating the robotic tour guide Minerva in the National Museum of American History in 1998 and donating course maps, helmets and equipment after his Stanford team propelled the self-driving car Stanley to cross the finish line and win the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. The car is currently on view at the National Air and Space Museum in the exhibition, "Time and Navigation."

We talked to him before his award presentation, when he was still out in Silicon Valley, multi-tasking as usual: riding an electric bike around as he did the interview. It became a kind of TED talk on wheels; we imagined a headset microphone attached to a futuristic helmet as he whizzed around corners, taking about the point of invention, amazing things on the horizon and the best digital invention ever, which happens to be celebrating its 560th anniversary in 2015.

We edited our conversation for clarity and to minimize the occasional wind gust.

This award will be given at a naturalization ceremony. When did you become a U.S. citizen?

I’m a dual citizen—U.S. and Germany. It happened about 12 years ago.

I wanted to participate in the political responsibilities of an American citizen. I wanted to vote. I wanted to be a full member of the American community. I made America my home country. It’s my identity in many ways. So the dual citizenship was a good step. Luckily I was able to retain my German citizenship, but I’m a big believer in America and its values. A big benefit of it was to have a chance to build a career and raise a family.

What drew you here to live 20 years ago?

For me, what stands out in the United States is the willingness to be able to ask any question and to break all the rules. Sometimes that’s seen negatively. But the heritage of this country, and its people, goes back to the [making of] a new country, and wanting to establish a better system. In doing so, almost everything had to be reinvented. That spirit continues to the present day, especially in Silicon Valley, and its ability to bypass old rules and find better, and often more efficient, ways to do things. That was important to me. That’s something that’s harder to do in Europe, because it’s much more conservative, and made up of much older countries, and they just don’t question.

Sebastian Thrun
Sebastian Thrun is a 2015 recipient of the James Smithson Bicentennial Award. (NMAH/SI)

What was Silicon Valley like when you first got there?  

It was a big revelation for me. I had been an academic all my life. As academics, you tend to believe the smartest people are in academia. But I found in Silicon Valley, more than in any other place, that there’s an enormous brain trust among the Steve Jobses and Larry Pages in the world. And the perspective on how to impact an idea is much more complete than it would be at any other institution. It’s something I couldn’t get anywhere else.

Did you bring your ideas there or did you develop them when you got there?

I think what I most learned at Silicon Valley was the idea of thinking, of how to ask the right questions, how to question the right assumptions, the right authority. The more I get into a different style of thinking, a different style of understanding, the easier it becomes to look at existing things and ask the important question: Could we do that better?

For example, my current company regards the question could pay education be organized better. Better meaning not just accessible, but also a higher quality, and the answer is absolutely yes. It sometimes surprises me how few people see it the same way when it’s so obvious to me.

What keeps people from thinking about old practices in new ways?

I think we get raised in a certain way and we take a lot of things for granted. A lot of it is just tradition. Sometimes you confuse tradition with the best solution. And tradition was often the best solution for its time. But as society progresses and technology progresses, people live different lifestyles, and what might have been a great solution yesterday might not be a great solution tomorrow.

Stanley, an autonomous vehicle that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, is on view in the "Time and Navigation" exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. (Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum)

You are known for your work at Google X, heading the team that developed Google Glass and the self-driving car. Were there approaches to each of those inventions that were common?

In all of these approaches, we had a vision of making aspects of life better. So in the self driving car, they were basically to make the car safe; so it wouldn’t collide any more, killing people as a result.The Google Glass was a device that would allow me to seamlessly benefit from my visual connections while still living my full life—while everyone else is looking down on their smartphones.

With Project Iris [which used contact lenses to detect glucose deficiency], we had this vision that we could manage glucose without stabbing your finger and looking at your blood. We had a project where we tried to cure cancer, which is ongoing, that finds certain kinds of cancer very curable. In all of these things they were cases where if you could just do it people’s lives would be better.

In the end, the question wasn’t about technology. In all these situations, we needed to convince ourselves that if you could invent this, people’s lives would be better and that it was completely doable. It’s really about execution and working together. And we’re still working on it.

Do you consider your job just creating devices, or do you need to bring people around to use them as well?

I see my job as really making it great. And great means, yes, people using it. For me the user is an important element in the cycle of innovation. Edison has been quoted saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

For me, to produce something like Udacity, it takes 2,000 iterations before we get it right. And the customer feedback is really important.

In the self-driving car, we haven’t got to the point of customer feedback. All we have now is that it would be a wildly successful product if it was safe—it would be wildly unsuccessful if it was unsafe. So we’ve been pushing on the safety part. The tests we’ve been doing with people, they all say that they love the technology, because it frees them up to do something else. So I think the risk of a bad fit is lower. But I think the price is too expensive. With the team I would have pushed really hard to get the first version really great. So for me the ultimate impact does not materialize when we make the invention, it materializes when we change peoples’ lives. The thing itself is not that interesting; it has to change people’s lives. That’s the motivation for me.

You’ve seen that with these inventions?

Certainly in education, it’s been changing people’s lives. Google Glass is at a young age, and many of the projects are at an early stage and will take some time. With Google Glass, the concept we put out was the first version in a big tent. It kind of failed. I happily say that because the intended use was to wear it all day. And I blame myself, because it was my ambition to build a device that you would use all day. And the better use may be for specific activities like sports. That will cause a redesign, an iteration of sunglasses and so on. But the first iteration was a very valuable iteration, and the only way to learn this.  

Of the rest, Udacity is certainly changing lives because people are getting jobs from it and have sent these raving letters—it’s kind of amazing.

What made you leave Google and go into education full-time?

I feel if you want to massively improve people’s lives, there’s nothing better you can do than education right now. Because education is the one thing that empowers people to empower themselves.

So a self-driving car saves people a couple hours a day which is a big deal. But education empowers people to build the next self-driving car, which is a bigger deal. There’s a saying, you give a man a fish and you feed him for one night, you teach a man to fish and he’s fed for the rest of his life.

The second thing about education is that it’s so utterly broken, it’s so badly mismanaged, and it’s broken in ways people don’t understand. If you look what’s happening today at Udacity, the vast majority of people we teach are people who would never have a chance at the existing education system, because it’s too exclusive, it’s too expensive, it’s too regional, and often too outdated.  

There’s a huge market of people willing to undergo education if you just make it more accessible. With the public debate of how you would replace higher education, the bigger issue, if you think about it, is bringing education to everybody. If it succeeded it could literally be the most important company ever built. And that’s very exciting to me.

In 1998, the robot "Minerva," developed by Sebastian Thrun and his team, took visitors on tours of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. (Richard Strauss, NMAH)

How is that achieved?

The methodology is very simple. It is very much the classic Silicon Valley methodology, which is to iterate: build a system that is a minimal system of what you want to do, understanding it’s the minimum system, not very good. Bring it out to the people. See how it performs. Make a list of the top 10 things that people want fixed and fix them. Some of the things might not be obvious, you don’t know always exactly what bothers people. But irrespective, if you iterate, you learn about every component of what you do, and you’re not in danger of defending something no one wants.

What is your dream for Udacity?

If I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me, measuring it not by the company itself but by the impact it would have. We are launching an education system that Google has undersigned, a joint education for entrepreneurship. It’s a niche to some extent, but if you bring this to the Middle East, if you bring this to Africa, if you bring this to Bangladesh, to developing countries, to China and India, I think it can have a huge impact on their ability to participate constructively in the creation of wealth and prosperity. Specifically the Middle East, at this point, suffers from the fact there is no path for young people to participate constructively, so some of those, as a result, may choose other paths, like terrorism.

What are the greatest obstacles of reaching that goal?

Where should I start? Obviously we are iterating the student experience, and in some courses we managed to get the finishing rate from about 2 percent to over 90 percent. And that was really hard work to make it really good. So think about it as a car that in the beginning drives about 10 mph, but with relentless engineering you get it to about 100 mph. That’s the product quality. The quality of the experience. The second one, honestly, is that education is such a slow growing field, so there is a trust element. Like, do you trust a new player? And to some extent education is owned by the degree-granting universities that have an efficient delivery model. So to gain the trust of our students means we’ll be placing them in jobs, showing the job records, to show how the teaching really empowers them. That will bring new students, but that’s going to take some time.

Eventually, it will take broadening the course catalog. We work with computer science and software stuff, but not everyone wants to be a software engineer.

Why the 2012 American Ingenuity Award winner believes higher education should be a basic human right

Beyond education, what other innovations do you see on the horizon?

I have a team at Stanford, for example, that looks into cancer, and we have some favorable results right now. We’re pushing really hard. Effectively, it’s the following—in medicine, the dominant paradigm for diagnostics, in most cases, is you’re being bothered by something. You seek the advice of a doctor, who diagnoses you and then prescribes his treatment. That works well with diseases where there are symptoms, but for non-symptomatic diseases like pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer and certain skin cancers, often what happens with those when finally a symptom occurs, is that it’s way past your chances for healing.

In pancreatic cancer for example, it may have started so small, they didn’t see anything. And only when it grew very large and spread, it caused a secondary situation, maybe some displacement of bones or whatever and then pain is what you feel. Or your liver is falling apart and your face turns yellow, which is a common diagnosis for pancreatic cancer. So I model on diagnostic tools that could monitor you life-long, without the initiative of a doctor, so stuff you could see every day, and measure every single day. It turns out there are a lot of signals in our environment that you could measure every single day.

We know a way we could take a full heart exam every time we touch a steering wheel with both hands. It would eliminate the need for the EKG. Why don’t we measure the diameters of ankles of aging people to see if the heart has sufficient capacity to push the fluids up, which is very indicative of a certain type of congestive heart disease.

And then we can go farther. I think we’ll outsource the human brain. One vision is: can we duplicate everything one person has learned? I believe we can. I don’t see why not. If you’re able to predict what a person does, you might be able to put it in a box. If you memorize everything a person has ever seen, you wouldn’t need old memories any more. You’d remember every face, every phone number, but you could also share memories. If you like this conversation and I wanted to share this conversation with somebody else, you wouldn’t have to ask the same questions again.

These are the kind of things people fear from the future: Outsourcing the brain, or having the government or outside agency be able to tap into the brain.

The biggest invention of modern time is the book. The book is a digital medium, book text is written in a different form and replicable. What it really does is it allows us to replicate cultural information, scientific technology and information out of the human brain. Before, it was person-to-person, it was very solitary, teaching mouth to mouth; now we’re able to rapidly replicate the scale of certain information. Yes, the church was scared about this and did whatever it could to supress this education and knowledge because the church teachings were inconsistent at the time with knowledge. Look what this was. If this was the source of all innovation, all scientific discoveries of all social advances of all globalization of language and so on. Without it, further advances would not be possible.

If everything you know had to be told to you by somebody, you wouldn’t know very much. We wouldn’t know how to write, or how to read or all these things. Take it a step further. Why not go into the next step of the evolution? It’s cheaper to produce and disseminate now. We can send a written text, send a personal video. The power is unbelievable.

Let’s go a step further and link the individual experiences and make them digitally transportable. What comes out of this is incomprehensible. But it’s going to be amazing. You’re going to be able to take everyone’s personal experience and put it online.

Wow. You’re thinking big.

Well, I was going to say that’s what I’m paid for. But I’m not paid very well.

Does that matter to you?

I make enough money. I have a house and I have food and clothing. So I’m actually fine. This is not about money, this is really about changing the world.

It’s interesting. People complain about the rich and poor divide. It’s crazy, no doubt about it. But what gets me is that today, a billionaire or head of state on their smartphone has the same direct access to information as a homeless person has on a smartphone, or a person in Bangladesh or Papua New Guinea.

So the difference in actual living comfort between the rich and poor is decreasing, compared to like a thousand years ago, when rich people were able to write and communicate and poor people couldn’t get food because they didn’t have any supplies.

So we’ve not only lifted up the top, we’ve lifted up the bottom. Now we need ways to make everything free. Like transportation will be free, education would be free, or nominally free. Food is basically free today, for the most part, compared to what it used to be. So as a society we’re just going to be abandoning stuff.

We live in this era where a lot of things are available to a lot of people and that’s exciting because it means more people have a chance.

Myself, a thousand years ago, would have been born a farmer and stayed a farmer and never changed my education level. Today the sky is the limit. If you want to go into science, you can become a brilliant scientist. What does that mean in a few years, when basically everything is free, and by virtue of having your brain outsourced, all of a sudden you’re super smart, and you can use your ability to create a better potential than you use today.

On June 11 at 2:30 p.m., Thrun will be a participant in a global summit, entitled "The Internet Age: Founders to Future," with Mitchell Baker, David Farber and Vint Cerf at the National Museum of American History's Warner Bros. Theater. The panel will discuss the innovations that lead to the Internet Age and provide perspectives on the future challenges and opportunities. The event will be webcast live here and here.

About Roger Catlin
Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin is a freelance writer in Washington D.C. who writes frequently about the arts for The Washington Post and other outlets. He wrote for many years at The Hartford Courant and writes mostly about TV on his blog

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