How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education

Sebastian Thrun, winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for education takes is redefining the modern classroom

Sebastian Thrun is turning his expertise in artificial intelligence to humans. (Ethan Hill / Composite Image: NASA; Google; Udacity)
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In his statistics course, he occasionally puts out some theorems that are “way too hard.” But he wants to see how many people will make the effort (60 percent, it turns out). While some have complained that his courses are too easy because they give students an endless number of chances, he says he’s inspired by Khan’s notion that different students learn at different speeds. “In the beginning, I was the typical professor, saying you get exactly one chance,” he says. “A lot of students complained: ‘Why do you do this? Why do you deprive at the moment where I’m actually succeeding?’”

This time, he realizes, he may be the one getting it wrong. “We’re starting from scratch,” he says. “I’m the first one to realize we haven’t figured out how to do it right. We really have to be humble and realize that it’s just the beginning.” He wants to redress “this bizarre imbalance” in education “between the value paid and the services rendered.”

As Norvig argues, “This idea that you go to school for four years and then you’re done—that’s not going to cut it. Ten years from now you’re going to be doing something that you weren’t trained in in college because it’s not a career that existed ten years ago. So you’re going to need continual training.” He now teaches at Udacity.

At Google Thrun had the latitude and money to work on projects like Streetview, where “you couldn’t really tell what it was good for, other than that it was kind of cool,” he says. His investment in Udacity is more personal. He likes to quote Regina Dugan, former head of DARPA: “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”


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