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Sebastian Thrun

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TEDTalks

It's not a demo, more of a philosophical argument: Why did Sergey Brin and his team at Google want to build an eye-mounted camera/computer, codenamed Glass? Onstage at TED2013, Brin calls for a new way of seeing our relationship with our mobile computers -- not hunched over a screen but meeting the world heads-up.

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“Build it. Break it. Improve it.” That was the Universal Law of Invention as defined by this year’s incredible ALVA Award winner, Sebastian Thrun. From the Google Self Driving Car to Google Glass to the education start-up Udacity, Thrun has led remarkable teams in the creation of products that will truly change the way the world works in the future.

Great inventors – and great inventions – solve problems, address real needs, and make the world work better. To recognize the next generation of world-changing creators, we created the ALVA Award in partnership with GE, which takes its name from the legendary inventor who inspired us: Thomas Alva Edison.

This year, we were honored to award the ALVA to Sebastian Thrun, who joined us live at the 99U Conference for an incredible presentation outlining his approach to making ideas happen. Along the way, Sebastian talked about the importance of setting wildly ambitious goals, embracing failure as an opportunity to learn, iterating as fast as you can, and giving your team members the autonomy they need to invent.

Watch Sebastian’s 99U Talk:

Photos from Sebastian’s Presentation:

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Learn more about the ALVA Award, and our past winners, at www.99u.com/alva.

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TEDTalks

Imagine an electric vehicle that can get you to work -- or anywhere in a six-mile radius -- quickly, without traffic frustrations or gasoline. Now imagine you can pick it up and carry it with you. Yes, this souped-up skateboard could change the face of morning commutes.

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TEDTalks

Entrepreneur Elon Musk is a man with many plans. The founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX sits down with TED curator Chris Anderson to share details about his visionary projects, which include a mass-marketed electric car, a solar energy leasing company and a fully reusable rocket.

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In the fall of 2011 Peter Norvig taught a class with Sebastian Thrun on artificial intelligence at Stanford attended by 175 students in situ -- and over 100,000 via an interactive webcast. He shares what he learned about teaching to a global classroom.

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sebastian thrunSebastian Thrun, one of the lead engineers behind Google's fringe Google[x] projects, was at the Wired Business conference in New York today.

On stage he answered a few questions about the Google[x] program at Google, which handles outlandish projects like self-driving cars and its computerized glasses project.

Here are some of the highlights:

What exactly is the new Google[X] project?

Sebastian Thrun: Google[x] in a single sentence is Google co-founder Sergey Brin's ambition to complete moonshot-type projects. (Shooting to the moon and bringing the moon to earth.)

The third project is Google Glasses. We know everyone is attached to their phones. We started saying well, that's kind of nice, but not what I want in my life. How can we think of technology as more liberating — how can we make the technology Jack Dorsey calls, "technology that goes away?" Why can't I just take a picture right on my eye so other people can see through my eyes?

So we came up with this concept of building a super lightweight computer. It's a project so far, not a product. It has a display, it has a camera, I took a picture of Charlie Rose. It has an ear-free component by using a speaker that touches your head for making a phone call. In the physical world, Google Glass is our best shot to achieve that, being hands free.

I looked at the feedback we got when we got to the public, distraction was the number one concern. We want to make a device that's there when you want it and not distract you. In addition to being a camera, we use it for when someone texts me I can read it. When I'm in the situation where I don't want to be distracted, I have the freedom to let go. And then I can go back.

The reason we went public, by the way, was to get feedback from everybody who might be our future customers. What are your concerns? We're looking very systematically into this now.

How do you build a team that will land on the moon every year?

ST: My very first conversation is, rule number one, disobey your manager. A year later my employees come back to me, every single one says, now I understand. This is the age of disruption, there's an amazing number of opportunities now. In the execution of disruption, many large companies have problems doing this.

It's hard to get out of this aura of opinions. You have a whole stack of opinions — manager, SVP, VP. I try to shield my team from opinions, give them a vision that I believe in and that they believe in, and let them do their thing. Then they come back a year later and something amazing emerges. 

Please follow SAI on Twitter and Facebook.

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There seems to be something in the water at Stanford University that’s making faculty members leave their more-than-perfectly-good jobs and go teach online.

Coursera co-founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller

Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng are on leave to launch Coursera, which will offer university classes for free online, in partnership with top schools.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Coursera is backed with $16 million in funding led by John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins and Scott Sandell at NEA. It has no immediate plans to charge for courses or make money in other ways.

Compared to Udacity, a similar start-up from former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun that’s creating its own classes, Coursera helps support its university partners in creating their own courses, which are listed under each school’s brand.

Some might doubt that universities would want to share their prized content for free online with a start-up, but Coursera has already signed up Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania as partners, with a set of classes launching April 23.

Coursera evolved in part out of the hugely popular Stanford classes that Ng and Thrun taught last fall on machine learning and artificial intelligence, respectively. Ng’s course had 104,000 people enrolled, with at least 46,000 completing at least one homework assignment. Of those, 23,000 completed a “substantial” amount of the class, and 13,000 received a “statement of accomplishment,” Ng said. He’ll be offering that class again starting next week.

Koller and Ng are particularly committed to developing pedagogy for this new medium, and have built their own course software and student forums. They describe their philosophy as similar to that of Salman Khan and the Khan Academy, where students are encouraged to take the time to master material at their own pace.

Coursera students help other students — in the fall, the median response time to a question asked on the class forum was 22 minutes — and the system will also learn from the students.

For instance, 2,000 of the 20,000 or so students in Ng’s online class had the exact same wrong solution on one problem set, he said. That’s an opportunity to recognize what’s happening and teach those students in that moment.

Plus, Koller and Ng have also conceived of an ambitious plan to grade humanities classes with thousands of students enrolled.

Coursera’s content is naturally heavy on computer science — where problem sets are fairly straightforward to grade — but it will also offer poetry, sociology and medical courses. These classes will be graded crowdsourcing style, with peer assessment and review. Figuring out how to grade masses of assignments on a subjective scale is a machine learning problem, Ng said.

Another ambitious venture-backed college-level online education start-up I recently covered is the Minerva Project, which is planning to launch its own mostly virtual elite university.

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Udacity

Using Khan Academy as inspiration, Sebastian Thrun decided to bring his Stanford class on artificial intelligence online. Anyone could sign up for free. And 160,000 people from around the world did. He saw the power of creating interactive lectures and distributing them for free. He left Stanford and launched Udacity, a company focused on bringing free university-level education to the world.

In the interview above, Sebastian Thrun, Co-Founder of Udacity, talks about how he will help students improve their careers, whether or not the goal is to replace traditional universities, how the classes are different from iTunes U style taped lectures, and why some of his Stanford students preferred to watch him online.

Sebastian used to think that becoming a Stanford professor was the pinnacle of achievement for a computer science teacher. Then he discovered Khan Academy was reaching millions of students. Suddenly, his popular lectures drawing upwards of 200 students didn’t seem so impressive.

Classes are currently focused on computer science since that’s what the team already knows how to teach. Examples include: Building a Search Engine and Programming a Robotic Car. As one of the inventors of Google’s self-driving car, Sebastian is perfectly suited to teach a class on how to program one. Udacity plans to expand to other subjects with the goal of building a full university online.

All classes are currently free, and the goal is to keep it that way. When asked how it will make money, Sebastian pointed out that recruiting good technical talent is something that companies pay for. Udacity knows who the best students are and could pass them along to companies looking for new hires.

The classes are different than watching a recorded lecture that you’d find on iTunes or MIT OpenCourseWare. Classes are interactive and stop to quiz you on what you’re learning. And one of the benefits is that you go at your own pace, unlike a traditional lecture.

Of course, there are drawbacks to teaching a class to hundreds of thousands of people online. It’s more difficult to form connections with other students in the class. And the one-on-one attention from a professor is practically non-existent. Udacity has been using Google Moderator to let students submit questions, but the experience is very different.

Udacity is aimed at bringing education to everybody, especially those who can’t afford it or are too busy working to attend classes. Since the classes are free, you’re getting an amazing value. But, someone with the time and money would probably still want to attend a traditional school (or accredited online program) to get a degree. If Udacity were to develop a worthwhile accreditation system, that could change.

With free courses in programming and web application engineering (taught by Steve Huffman, founder of Hipmunk and Reddit), you now have one less excuse not to pursue that startup idea that’s been bouncing around in your head.

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The Minerva Project says it’s planning to launch the first elite American university in a century. Sounds wacky, right?

But the project is starting to gather some heavyweight support: Former Harvard President and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers will chair its advisory board, and Benchmark Capital has committed $25 million, the VC firm’s largest seed investment ever.

Elite higher education is a stagnant market, argues Minerva CEO Ben Nelson. Far more people are qualified to get into top colleges than are admitted. Meanwhile, college education is too expensive and good teaching is undervalued. How can you address all that? By going online.

Unlike former Stanford professor and Google exec Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity, which started by offering a small selection of university-level classes online, Minerva plans to birth itself as a full alternative to college.

Minerva will be a virtual school, though it will encourage students to live together in dorm clusters around the world. It doesn’t plan to offer introductory-level classes — students will be expected to go to community colleges or take online courses to get up to speed.

To attract the best professors to contribute Minerva courses, the school will be paying them well and running an international “Minerva Prize” for the best college-level teaching, with a substantial cash reward.

As for admission, Minerva promises it will give “no weight to lineage, athletic ability, state or country of origin, or capacity to donate.”

Oh, and here’s the most ridiculously audacious bit of all of this: Minerva plans to admit its first class in 2014.

Here’s Nelson giving his pitch about “Taking on the Ivy League” last year at TEDxSF. Nelson was formerly CEO of SnapFish and chairman of RedBeacon.

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