Official Blog of Center10 Consulting

Don't Save Up For College!

on Sunday, May 19, 2013
Sebastian's impromptu talk over brunch to our eclectic group of friends 
Sebastian Thrun remembers hearing the news of his friend's demise and thinking that there must be a better way - his friend was killed in a traffic accident in the German countryside. As Sebastian thought through what could have prevented this tragedy, he decided to pursue the idea of a safe car. Rather than added airbags, Sebastian took apart the very act of driving, and the result was the driverless car.

A fun Sunday brunch at our place with Sebastian included him telling my kids they shouldn't worry about college, in a roomful of academics. Of course, he jests. He pretty much created MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses - when he put one of his Stanford lectures online - and over a weekend landed up with 14,000 enrollments (that was equal to all of Stanford's enrolled students.) Eighteen months on, MOOCs are a burgeoning industry. His startup, Udacity, has had 400,000 users to date!

Sebastian was in town to speak at a Columbia University graduation, and my husband who is Columbia's digital officer invited some of his colleagues to meet him at our place. It was inspiring to see the great brains from across disciplines including the historian and Lincoln authority Eric Foner, and economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, engage with Sebastian. He acknowledged the role that the humanities played in driving progress. So while MOOCs would drive capability building, there is a lot more to be done in bringing that liberal education to the masses. In effect, he'd love to break some of the orthodoxies of universities, including the lockstep nature of teaching, the sense that learning be melded fluidly into work, etc.

Sebastian and former Columbia Engineering Dean Zvi Galli (now at Georgia Tech) have just revolutionized higher ed by creating a fully online master's degree in computer science from Georgia Tech for $7,000, instead of the ~$100K or more that you would normally pay at a top engineering school.

Sebastian is the poster child for STEM education - he started with an engineering masters in Germany and decided to proactively tour the great US engineering schools and would land in a school and ask to meet professors. His audacity, drive and engagement has been a core element of his success.

His achievements include:
  • Google Glass, which he worked on as part of the original team
  • Driverless Cars - when he brought the idea to Larry Page, he said it might take 10 years, and Larry suggested he do it in 3. 18 months later, the prototype was ready. Talk about beating your deadlines!
  • MOOCs - while online education has been around for a while, he pushed the frontiers on scale, accreditation, ease of use and technical sophistication
Which of his inventions do you think will have the greatest impact? While I'm all about capability building (so MOOCs would be a natural choice for me), I can imagine life, health and work being hugely impacted by the driverless car. Think of all the mid and low-income families who could be ferried by self-driving shared cars or public transport and not hobbled by car payments.

He seems to perpetually be in thought experiments with those around him - it's always about painting possibilities. Then his engineering DNA kicks in and solves for the core issues. I look forward to what else he'll transform. My nominations for Sebastian would include:
  • Healthcare
  • Food distribution
  • Women's safety
Trying out the Google Glass - amazing interface, powerful processor, fantastic voice-enabled control,
surprisingly unobtrusive, and I rather like the Terminator-Glowing-Eye effect!


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