Mr. Thrun earned a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Bonn, "the 53rd of 53 German computer-science schools," he adds. His focus was on artificial intelligence, a field that failed in the 1980s with a rules-based approach-because humans could never come up with all the rules a machine needed-but then flourished in the mid-90s when machines had to learn the rules by themselves, by trial and error, almost like an infant.
Mr. Thrun left Germany in the mid-90s for Carnegie Mellon-looking "for the lack of authority, unlike Germany"-to build intelligent machines. His mentor at CMU, Tom Mitchell, told him, "Pick a problem that matters to society." So he helped create robots, including a "nursebot" to assist the elderly in nursing homes and robotic tour guides, where one named Minerva led thousands of visitors during a stint at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. This required a cross-discipline education including nursing, psychology, material science and whatever else was required to help machines learn about the real world. These were hard projects, he says. "Just let go, trust your ability to learn, more [than] holding on to the things you've achieved-and that became the central theme in my life."
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."
I ask why he always takes on these quantum changes instead of trying something incremental. "That's what Google taught me. Aim higher. Udacity is my playground-to radically experiment and find out. I've seen the light."
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."
David Fuller's view This creative culture, which encourages very smart people to break all the known procedural and academic rules in the interests of technological development, remains America's great advantage.
It can be replicated elsewhere, and presumably will to a greater or lesser extent at some point. Meanwhile, many of the best ideas in the incredibly exciting field of technology are still emanating from Silicon Valley.
We live in an era of accelerated technological innovation which has unlimited potential, including applications for all other fields of endeavour. It is worth remembering this when we feel overwhelmed by the world's problems.