Part of The Best of 2013

Google's Original X-Man

A Conversation With Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian Thrun in San Francisco, September 2013.
Sebastian Thrun in San Francisco, September 2013. (Getty Images / Bloomberg)

Sebastian Thrun is one of the world’s leading experts on robotics and artificial intelligence. Born in Solingen, Germany, in 1967, he received his undergraduate education at the University of Hildesheim and his graduate education at the University of Bonn. He joined the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University in 1995 and moved to Stanford University in 2003. Thrun led the team that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless car competition sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department, and in 2007, he joined the staff of Google, eventually becoming the first head of Google X, the company’s secretive big-think research lab. He co-founded the online-education start-up Udacity in 2012. In late August, he spoke to Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose in the Udacity offices.

How and why did you first get into science and technology?
As a child, I spent a lot of time with things like Lego, building trains, cars, complex structures, and I really liked that. When I was about 11, I got a TI-57 programmable calculator. This let you write programs of up to 50 steps, which would be erased when you switched it off. I got very enthusiastic about seeing just what you could do with that. Could you program a game, could you program complex geometry, could you solve financial equations? (The answer for all of those is yes.) I had a little booklet in which I kept my 50-step programs, of which I was very proud. A few years later, I got a NorthStar Horizon computer, which I used to program my own video games, which was extremely fun.

As a college student, what really interested me was the human brain and human intelligence. I dabbled in philosophy and medicine and psychology and eventually found that the most constructive way to approach those problems was through computer science and artificial intelligence: you could actually build something from the ground up that would then manifest intelligence, even if only a little bit of it, and that fascinated me.

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