Sebastian Thrun is an innovator and entrepreneur best known as the pioneer of Google’s self-driving cars. But that is not all he does. The 52-year-old computer scientist is also the founder and chairman of Silicon Valley-based online education startup Udacity which reaches millions of students in over 190 countries, including 1.3 million in India. Originally from Germany, Thrun now sees India as one of the top growing markets for education, automation, self-drive technology, and artificial intelligence. Thrun, who Fortune named as one of the 50 smartest people in technology in 2010, believes his courses can empower thousands of Indians and even make them industry-ready. At the same time, Thrun as CEO of electric aircraft maker Kitty Hawk, also wants to make real, usable flying cars a reality. In an exclusive interview with Fortune India, he talks about his vision of democratising education with Udacity and opportunities in India’s auto-tech industry.
Tell me something about your experiment that led you to start Udacity in 2011.
While I was running Google X and working on self-driving cars, I also taught a class at Stanford University called ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’. And back in the day, it was not a big deal like it is today. So, I took one class online.It was made available for free and anybody could take the same exam as Stanford students. And this class signed up 160K students worldwide. It takes about 10 lives to teach so many students fora professor. Then, 23K graduated from the class and I compared my online students who had taken the same classes and the same exams as the Stanford students and the top four students were not on-campus. So, I asked the students,“Why are you so smart?” Many of them were from India. We had a single mother raising two children, an IT professional on dialysis, a person on deathbed who wanted to finish the class before he died. To me, this was an eye-opener. These were people a little smarter than Stanford students but would never get admitted to Stanford. That’s when I realised while Stanford is a very pristine and high-quality institute, it’s also very inaccessible. That’s how Udacity began.
Why is India an important market for you?
I think education should be a basic human right.Which means that we have to work very hard to reach everybody. That’s why I’m here in India.We can make people employable. We have a huge number of graduates here already...about 13K. People say that automation etc. will lead to job losses but AI is to office work what the steam engine was to farming. We can make the machines do all the repetitive work and find more and more creative jobs for people. And I also believe that there are many unfilled jobs today. Like,there could be many more teachers. We could easily have six times as many teachers. India has huge potential for this and we can enable that.
You were one of the first ones to work on self-drive technology. What led you to work on that?
I always cared about transportation. I lost my best friend as a teenager [to a car accident]. In 2009,[Google co-founder] Larry Page came to me and said, “Why don’t you build a car that can be driven in every street in California.” And I thought,“Oh my god, you want to kill children?” He kept telling me to try it and I kept telling him that it’s impossible. He asked if there is a technical reason why this is not possible? Then I went home and realised it was impossible because I couldn’t imagine it and not because it was technically impossible. In 2010, we could actually drive it in every street in California and I couldn’t believe that progress could be made in a year and a half.
We can make the machines do all the repetitive work and find more and more creative jobs for people.
Your next big project is flying cars. It sounds good on paper. What’s happening on the ground?
The response to my ideas has been mostly disbelief. When I first worked on self-driving cars more than 10 years ago, no one took me seriously. Having learnt from the way other inventions progress, in three or four years, this will be of interest for everyone else, I promise you. We’re very much focussed on the people and what we call urban transportation. We have vehicles that can get you from here [Lajpat Nagar] to Delhi airport in like five minutes. Being able to go 200 km an hour to me is a game changer. We have prototypes.More than 10K flying so far globally—mostly in the U.S. and New Zealand. And the technical problems are basically solved. What’s not solved is that we don’t have a certified system recognised as safe. We don’t have scale. We have built 70 or 80 of those so far but it’s a very nascent industry.People love to call it a car because it’s like their childhood fantasy. But it’s more like a drone or helicopter and it’s all electric.
Do you think it’s realistic for a country like India which has persistent traffic issues and regulatory roadblocks?
I love India and I love Indian people. But I’m not entirely in love with the traffic in India. If you had a magic wand and could lift your car up, say 100 metres, in the air, you could just go in a straight line and if you counter other traffic, you could just go higher. The conflict is gone. So, to me, it’s inevitable that here in India, is a phenomenally great way to use flying cars for your daily commute to work. So, we have vehicle prototypes that can go easily 150 miles per hour, all electric. I am a big fan of regulators because I think the regulators and I have the same interest, which is safety.And I believe that as we demonstrate safety, we continue to work actively with them. We have a history of managing aircraft, it’s called air traffic control. We can bring it down to the city level.There’s nothing technically hard. In the States, we have many car-charging stations. In India, too, it’s going to happen. When cars were invented, there were similar issues. There were no paved roads,no gas stations and so on. So, it’s going to take some time. But if you can cross all of Delhi in 10 minutes, wouldn’t every person want to do it?
(This interview was originally published in the June-September special issue of the magazine.)