“We believe that higher education is amazing in this country, but very inaccessible to most people, and our mission is to make it accessible to everyone.
Alan: Welcome back I’m here today with Sebastian Thrun, he is the founder of Udacity. Sebastian welcome to today’s show.
Sebastian: It’s great to be here
Alan: So Sebastian for the listeners can you take us through your background of how you got to where you are today.
Sebastian: Well, I’m born and raised in Germany, in old Europe. I got my PhD in computer science in 2005 in Germany, and then I became a professor first at Carnegie Mellon university and then at Stanford university and about 4 years later I gave up tenure and joined Google and there I founded an institute Google X and worked on things like self driving cars, and Google glass, were some of my projects, and then I found my way into Udacity, which is a startup company that seeks to democratize education.
Alan: So as you here going back through your timeline it is very unique timeline, starting into Google X and moving from education, but what are some of your most favorite projects or experiences that you’ve had prior to Udacity
Sebastian: Where should I start? Maybe the best known is from 2005. My Stanford team, I was working at Stanford at the time, participated in what is called the Doppler Graham challenge, which is an autonomous vehicle race. The task was to build self-driving cars, which ten years ago, that would navigate a desert terrain. There were about 200 teams competing and with a lot of luck my team won. You can go to the air and space museum and admire Stanley the car, it is the only car to be in the air and space museum in the Smithsonian in Washington DC. From there we invented the idea of making self-driving cars. Now at the time people laughed about this and thought it was impossible, while today people always talk about self-driving cars, but back in the day it was a novelty. So around 2009 we started a self-driving car project at Google and brought it up to scale.
Alan: So I heard a rumor that in the state of California that when they caught wind of self-driving cars they passed a law that they had to have steering wheels. Is that true?
Sebastian: Yeah so when I ran that team at Google we passed legislation that paved the way towards completely self-driving cars. And more recently the regulators stepped in and said “we want to have steering wheels” and it’s a big on going debate right now on what a self driving car is, whether it requires a person behind the wheel to monitor the system, or whether the car can be driven by itself.
Alan: So lets move over to Udacity then. How many years have you been doing this for, and what brought this about?
Sebastian: Well Udacity started around 2011 when I decided to take my Stanford class on artificial intelligence that I was co-teaching with a fellow Googler Peter Norvick, online. It was a unprecedented step, I sent one email online saying you can take CS221, artificial intelligence, you can now take this free of charge online, and lo and behold 160,000 students signed up, and we got viral. We were written up on the front page of the New York Times, people were applauding Stanford for making its curriculum available and free of charge. Of the 160,000 students, 23,000 finished so that was amazing. So I was teaching more students in this one class than I could teach on Stanford’s campus in 10 lifetimes.
Alan: That must have given you the distinct impression that you’re on to something here.
Sebastian: Yeah, it started this whole MOOC mania, the New York Times subsequent the year of 2012 as the year of the MOOC, other companies sprung up like Coursera and edX in addition to Udacity. We started thinking about what could be achieved in the world if you started to democratize education and make it available to everybody. And that’s our mission we really do want to bring education to everybody. Education is the great equalizer. We believe that higher education is amazing in this country, but very inaccessible to most people, and our mission is to make it accessible to everyone.
Alan: When you launched Udacity were there initially partnerships with certain universities or schools? Or did you say “we are going to stand alone and let people come to us if they want to engage in our curriculum.”
Sebastian: Well initially Udacity partnered with universities. We had a partnership in California, with the California State University System, and we have an ongoing partnership with Georgia Tech, in Georgia, but we quickly realized that our niche is not to replicate universities. Our niche is lifelong learning. And the type of subjects our students are most excited about are the type of stuff that Google and Facebook do. Why? Because these companies are on the bleeding edge, the cutting edge of technology. So for example, earlier this year a program called AlphaGo, a program developed by Google, a deep learning program, beat the world’s best Go player, which was a major accomplishment in the field of artificial intelligence. The underlying secret sauce is called “Deep learning”, it is a machine learning method, and it is a set of technologies that allow computers to learn from data. And even before this historic event happened, we had a Google built class on our platform that taught students how to be proficient in deep learning, and Google’s platform of intensive law. What that really means is, as we work with companies like Google, Salesforce, Amazon and others, we can bring bleeding edge content onto the market really really fast.
Alan: I’m visiting here today with Sebastian Thrun, and I need to take a quick break, and we will be right back after these messages.
Alan: Welcome back I’m here today with Sebastian Thrun, he is the founder of Udacity. Udacity is a very unique name, where did it come about?
Sebastian: Well we felt audacious on the day that we found Udacity, and audacity was taken and so we dropped the “a” figured that it come be Udacity because it was audacity for “U” and the “u” stood for university.
Alan: So that’s very creative then, an audacious project from which Udacity came about. Now if we look at Udacity today, and your vision when you were first rolling this out, was this really for people with college degrees or were you focusing on people just coming out of high school, or what was your initial vision?
Sebastian: Our vision is to tie together education with jobs so with Udacity you can come to us and we almost guarantee you a job, in fact if you can’t find a job we will give you your tuition back. There are very few institutions that will give you a full tuition refund if you can’t find a job. I think it’s very important because we believe that education for us not just stands for self-improvement and self-advancement but it also stands for your ability to make a productive contribution to society, aka having a career or a job that you like.
Alan: This is all really disruptive when you look at traditional universities they give you core curriculum and then you go to a specialized major, but Udacity is really looking for competencies and skills for life, if I understand correctly.
Sebastian: Yeah and I we need to rethink education, and the notion of a once in a lifetime early education is insufficient in today’s world. Today’s average American worker stays in their job for less than five years but 25% are already working on demand type jobs, and society is moving so fast, technology is moving so fast that you almost have to rethink education over and over again and that’s where education comes in. We are very fast, we are very compact, very focused and give people skills to work in the tech industry, and we are also extremely affordable,
Alan: I realize that this is a moving target but about how many students have you enrolled to date in your programs.
Sebastian: We are getting close to five million students now so we are a fairly massive university. We have offices in China, India, the Middle East, Europe and South America
Alan: And when we look at machine learning have you built that into a primary core competency for your course curriculums or how does that play into the role and the mission of Udacity?
Sebastian: So Udacity offers an entire nanodegree, as we call it, in machine learning, it takes about a half a year and bleeding edge curriculum that teaches students a really really hot technology. If you go around the valley today and ask companies, Facebook and Google, what are the hottest technologies on the planet, they’ll tell you it’s machine learning, it’s artificial intelligence. And we teach it with the best teachers on the planet.
Alan: How many classes are you offering currently?
Sebastian: Udacity offers about 15 nanodegrees and 120 different classes. We have most of them built by top companies, like Salesforce and Amazon.
Alan: This is not an easy program, people coming in have to demonstrate competency in these course curriculums in order to get through.
Sebastian: That’s correct, there is no free lunch. If you want to lose weight, you can’t just take a pill and lose weight. If you want to get smart about something, you can’t just take a pill and get smart about it, but it’s fun Udacity learning focuses on projects. You have a one on one mentor that works with you to develop your skills and you learn by doing not by watching. So it’s not like a traditional university where you watch a professor profess, it’s more like something were you learn by doing.
Alan: I’m visiting here today with Sebastian Thrun, he is the founder of Udacity. Sebastian, I need to take a quick break, and when we come back I want to jump deeper into the nanodegree of Udacity. We will be right back after these messages.
Alan: Welcome back, I’m visiting here today with Sebastian Thrun, and we’ve been talking about Udacity and in the last segment we mentioned nanodegrees and how you offer 15 different nanodegrees, and I wanted to jump into this area deeper. First of all for the listeners what exactly is a nanodegree?
Sebastian: Nano degree is a completely new credential that is much more focused and shorter than a traditional degree. Bachelor degrees take 4-6 years; master’s degrees take 1-2 years. Nanodegrees take about a half of a year with part time work. The idea was that in half a year you should be able to learn a tech skill to reskill yourself for a new job.
Alan: When you look at the fifteen degrees, is it a fairly broad spectrum? Would machine learning be one degree or how do you divide this up?
Sebastian: That’s correct, we see Udacity as a university of Silicon Valley so we do tech skills from Android programming, iOS, to machine learning. We have one in the works on self-driving cars and another on virtual reality. So we take bleeding edge technology skills that are in very high demand in Silicon Valley and turn them into curriculum.
Alan: Do you find your enrolling people within companies with existing jobs or do you have a placement program for the graduates to put them into different companies.
Sebastian: We recruit students from all over the world from all different trades. We have mothers who raise children, we have people moving from one job to the next, we have professional sports people that one career to the next, and we place them in all top companies. We place quite a few people in Facebook and Google and other companies we assist them in their job seeking activities. In fact the Udacity plus program offers students a full refund of their tuition if they are unable to find a job.
Alan: You know this is not an easy area when you are looking at the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Where do you find the professors to teach those classes?
Sebastian: Well Silicon Valley is full of experts and the companies we are working with, the Google’s and so on, are extremely eager to work with us because they are all looking for talent. It also turns out these subjects like machine learning are really fun, they are fascinating, they are amazing, they are the best that we have in computer science today, so a lot of people in the industry love teaching and love instructing students and so it’s a fantastic ecosystem.
Alan: Where do you see the future of Udacity?
Sebastian: Udacity seeks to be a worldwide institution. As I mentioned we have offices on all continents. As I mentioned we would love to educate, tens if not hundreds of millions of students. Our mission, Udacity’s mission is to democratize education. We firmly believe that education is the great equalizer. We also believe, if you catch a man a fish he has dinner for the night, if you teach a man to fish, he or she, has dinner for the rest of their life and that’s what we want to do. We want to bring the best education to everyone in the world so that everyone has a fair chance.
Alan: Now conceptually with artificial intelligence…I’ve heard this said before that as good as we are with writing algorithms and getting machines to talk to each other we will never be able to replace the human emotion that goes behind making decisions. What are your feelings on that?
Sebastian: Well I’m actually happy that my machines are not emotional because I don’t want to come to my kitchen and hear from my dishwasher that he fell in love with the refrigerator and doesn’t want to do dishes for me anymore. I want machines that are predictable and reliable. I want my plane to fly; I want my self-driving car to drive reliably. So people argue how important emotions and humans have emotions and they might serve a purpose but I’d rather not have emotions in my machines.
Alan: Where do you see this all going with machine learning in a 3-5 year window?
Sebastian: I believe that machine learning will make us super human gives us capabilities that we don’t have today. I worked for a long time on Google Glass, and the vision was that Google glass would understand everything that we do and memorize everything and help us to recognize every person we ever met and then share that information faster than we can presently do. We are just beginning to understand how to augment the human brain to make it a much much better machine.
Alan: Do you use quantum physics in any of your course curriculum?
Sebastian: We do not use quantum physics partially because I don’t understand it myself but for computing I would love to understand it better. But we do stuff in Udacity that is really in demand so typically when you come to us and finish another degree, you have zero problems finding a job
Alan: What are your most popular courses with Udacity right now?
Sebastian: Highly popular is Android, we run the only Google approved and certified certification system here, so if you want to be an Android programmer you basically have to work with us. Machine learning is also very popular. We also have a highly popular introduction to programming nanodegree; it’s not a job seeking degree. People can go and learn deep programming and how to program a website, how to program in python.
Alan: So if a person wants to get more information on Udacity where would they go?
Sebastian: They can go to the website, Udacity.com, they can download the iPhone or the Android app and they get started.
Alan: So for the listeners, what does a course run per cost?
Sebastian: Udacity charges $200 a month. Like I mentioned there are two options. With one option you get half of your tuition back upon graduation, another option, the nanodegree plus program, you get your full tuition back if you are unable to find a job, we will help you find a job.
Alan: That’s a very disruptive model saying we will give you full refund if we don’t place you.
Sebastian: I believe that every US University should do this. Offer full refunds if their graduates can’t find jobs. And we believe it’s just fair. There are so many students who come out of college now surrounded with enormous college debt, we charge a small fraction of what other colleges do and we are absolutely willing to say that we are willing to put our money where our mouth is. So if you can’t find a job you get your full tuition back. So either way our education either is free and your first months salary will be able to cover your tuition cost which is typically $1,000 or $2,000 or if your can’t find a job which hasn’t happened much yet, we will be able to give you your tuition back.
Alan: Also in this model for Udacity it is not limited to just the English curriculum, there are several languages that are taught?
Sebastian: Yes we started adapting them, localizing is what they are called, Udacity to different regions we have of course offices in India, China, so on, we have a Chinese version now. We have an Arabic speaking version, and we are having very much success with Udacity in Egypt, we have a scholarship program for Syrian refugees in Europe so that they can actually move beyond their refugee status and become experts, and again our mission is to democratize education, and so we really care about bringing education not just to America, but to the entire world.
Alan: Sebastian I appreciate you being on today’s show.
Sebastian: Thank you so much Alan
Alan: I’ve been visiting here today with Sebastian Thrun, he is the founder of Udacity, and we will be right back here after these messages.