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Google's Original X-Man

A Conversation With Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian Thrun

  • Country: Germany
  • Title: First Head of Google X, Co-founder of Udacity
  • Education: University of Hildesheim, University of Bonn
  • Awards: CAREER award from the National Science Foundation (1999-2003), Olympus award, German Society Pattern for Recognition (2001)
  • Website: Sebastian Thrun

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.

Institut für Informatik Thrun stands behind RHINO. His team won second place in a 1994 U.S. competition to create a robot that could clean a kitchen. "It represented the state of the art at the time," explains Thrun. (Institut für Informatik)
Carnegie Mellon Minerva, a robotic museum tour guide, "had a face, it could smile, it could frown, and it was great fun." Seen here in the American Museum of History in 1998. (Carnegie Mellon)
Carnegie Mellon Nursebot, a robot for elderly care, was developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s after Thrun became an adjunct professor of nursing at the University of Pittsburgh. (Carnegie Mellon)
Carnegie Mellon Groundhog, a robotic system for mapping abandoned mines, was deployed near Pittsburgh in 2002. "Around Pittsburgh," Thrun explains, "there are an enormous number of abandoned coal mines. And many of these mines lack active maps -- where the mines were done illegally or where the maps got lost over the decades." (Carnegie Mellon)
Thrun completes a last minute check on Stanley, a driverless vehicle, which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. "In the middle of the race," says Thrun, "there was a point where I was absolutely certain that our car had failed." (Reuters)
"At this point, most of us believe the car drives better than the best human drivers," says Thrun. This is what Google's self-driving car "sees" as it turns. (Bill Gross / Twitter)
Google Glass, for which Thrun helped develop early prototypes, will be available for purchase in 2014. "It’s a full computer, not dissimilar to the PCs I was playing with when I was a teenager, but it weighs only 45 grams," Thrun notes. (Thomas Hawk / Flickr)
Most recently, Thrun has turned his attention to Udacity, his online-education start-up. "I went into education because I learned from my friends at Google how important it is to aim high. I believe online education can make a difference in the world, more so than almost anything else I’ve done in my life." (Udacity.com)

Why robotics?
I ultimately got into robotics because for me, it was the best way to study intelligence. When you program a robot to be intelligent, you learn a number of things. You become very humble and develop enormous respect for natural intelligence, because even if you work day and night for several years, your robot isn’t that smart after all. But since every element of its behavior is something that you created, you can actually understand it.

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