Source: WSJ, Jun 2012
He eventually found his way to Stanford, leading the university team’s entry in the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Grand Challenge to create an autonomous vehicle that could navigate 132 miles through a desert. He insisted on a blank slate, letting student imaginations run wild as opposed to proving that some professor’s arcane research actually works. “It’s sad that we never get trained to leave assumptions behind,” he says. Stanford won by 11 minutes.
At Google X, Mr. Thrun brought in University of Washington Prof. Babak Parviz to create a set of eyeglasses that are capable of displaying Web and Google search results. Not easy—yet another cross-discipline challenge to make the device ultra lightweight and natural to use. It was announced recently as Google Glass. It works like bifocals in that you look up to see the display so your normal vision below is never blocked. “We discovered this is not some crazy moon shot, this is real. It turned out we were closer to something interesting than all of us thought.” Every geek is itching for a pair.
“What I see is democratizing education will change everything,” he says. “I have an unbelievable passion about this. We will reach students that have never been reached. I can give my love of learning to other people. “
Ah, another Thrun project that can radically disrupt the old way of doing things. “But isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? I’m going part-time at Google to pursue this. I really care. Isn’t this the American history? Can’t you pinpoint almost everything that happened back to some technological breakthrough?” Indeed, this is going to disrupt public schools and teachers unions and universities and tenured professors and so on, Mr. Thrun effectively interjects: “The dialogue always focuses on what’s going to happen to the institutions. I’m totally siding with the students.”
Now Mr. Thrun is talking like a true Silicon Valley entrepreneur. “The AI class was the first light. Online education will way exceed the best education today. And cheaper. If this works, we can rapidly accelerate the progress of society and the world. If you think Facebook is neat, wait five to 10 years. So many open problems will be solved.”