Home / Technology / Tech-news /  AI is perhaps the biggest revolution of the modern age: Sebastian Thrun

Mumbai: Sebastian Thrun is a man of many parts. The president and co-founder of e-learning company Udacity, is not only an innovator and computer scientist but also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corporation that makes flying cars and chairman of Cresta.ai—a company that automates repetitive tasks likes sales chats. Germany-born Thrun was earlier a Google VP and Fellow. At Google, he founded Google X and Google’s self-driving car team. He is currently also an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University and at Georgia Tech.

In a telephonic interview from Silicon Valley, he spoke about his different ventures and shared his thoughts on artificial intelligence (AI). Edited excerpts:

What’s the unifying thought in all your ventures?

There is a unified thought but in a broad way. I think about what’s missing in the world and how can we leverage technologies to make people’s life better--be it education, transportation, information, or their businesses.

Are you happy with the progress of Udacity? Are the courses helping people land good jobs?

We are seven years old. I would argue that at this point that companies are taking the nanodegrees more and more seriously around the world, including India. We have tens of thousands of students who have found new jobs because of our education. Many hundreds of companies, including lots of companies in India, accept the nanodegree credential as a valuable proof of education. They still prefer professional master degrees, following which students take the courses and get their nanodegrees. For example, we teach the world’s students Deep Learning and Machine Learning, more than all the students in universities combined. The same is with self-driving cars. We have a self-driving car engineering nanodegree which has 40,000 registered students.

What’s the vision behind Kitty Hawk? Also, how are you tackling the issues of safety and cost?

Every time I come to India, I admire Indian people but I don’t admire the traffic in India. With Kitty Hawk, the vision and the dream is that we might at some point be able to travel in the air daily. When that happens, there won’t be any traffic in the world because there will be enough space with and not many constraints for houses and trees. Flyer is a one seater and Cora is a two-seater. Cora has big wings, and is for a longer distance of up to 60 miles while Flyer is meant for shorter distances. On safety, we have a highly redundant proprietary system and we are doing everything on par with the best practices in aviation. Costs will come down over time.

Are companies and governments warming up for the whole idea of air taxis?

They must, soon. The government of New Zealand has heavily invested in our partnership and we are hopeful that it will take them to the air.

What are your thoughts on people and businesses both loving and fearing AI?

For me, AI is perhaps the biggest revolution of the modern age. The fundamental innovation is that in the past, the computer would blindly follow rules. But with the use of AI, and Machine Learning in particular, the computer can now get examples and find its own moves. It takes years of training to become a good doctor or a lawyer but with AI, we could turn people into instant experts on day one. For example, we trained an AI system to recognise skin cancer--it became as good as a certified doctor who has spent years and years in training.

So you are not basically afraid of AI?

Not at all. I will never be. These are machines to make people strong, and that goes for all machines we use.

Tell us a little about Cresta AI?

I think the news (about Cresta) is a bit overblown. I am just its Chairman. I don’t work there. When you are an online sales person, you get cornered about customers when you are not able to crack those sales. If you see, sales conversation are really repetitive. There are good sales people and there are not so good sales people. Cresta learns from every conversation. Over one month of learning, it has learned so much that it can give everybody else advice. That is why, for new sales people, it helps them to double their sales conversions and also lets them handle five conversations at the same time. This is very significant, as he (the sales person) can do the work of four people, crack many sales and get high commissions.

Any other technology trends that you are excited about?

Blockchain has become a very hot topic and lot of young and smart people have beginning to work on it. Blockchain, in my opinion, can be compared with the internet in 1995. I think blockchain is in a similar situation except for the (crypto) currencies. We now have a building block that allows the flow of value, insurance, money, etc. –innovation in a way it hasn’t happened before. I would say it’s a really early stage. We need to have a crisp understanding of what is happening. I think a lot of stuff is not sustainable but the idea is sustainable.


Leslie D'Monte

Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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