"Technology gives us super-human powers"
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"Technology gives us super-human powers"

Computers and robots relieve us of repetitive activities, so we can concentrate on the interesting parts of life and work. This began with the invention of the plow and applies even more so in the age of technology, says Sebastian Thrun, a prophet of the digital world. 

Mr. Thrun, a simple question to get started. What makes us human?

Sebastian Thrun: Of course, you mean that ironically – but the answer is actually surprisingly simple. Human beings are the center of our world. Creativity and value systems are what make us human. And for all of us, our fellow humans are the most important elements of our life.

When we think about digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence for instance, are we also thinking about the nature of human beings then?

Exactly. With each new technology, we reexamine the human condition, humanity's existence and our understanding of ourselves as human beings. It always revolves around the same thing: giving human beings super-human powers. We could not have talked to each other 150 years ago because our voices alone were not loud enough to be heard from the US to Switzerland. We could not swim across the Atlantic either; we're simply not built to do it. Today, however, we talk over the Internet – or fly from Los Angeles to Zurich in 12 hours.

The term artificial intelligence was coined in 1956, exactly 60 years ago. Expectations have been huge for this new discipline ever since, but with the exception of a handful of Hollywood films, it has never fulfilled them. Is that different now?

Yes, it is definitely different. In the past, we tried to teach a machine rules by programming it with every conceivable situation. That is of course impossible. Today, we pursue a different method. We let the computer itself learn. We no longer program by prescribing rules to the computer, but by giving it examples. Specifically, you show a computer a hundred million websites, and it will extract the rules of good web design itself.

Is that such a big difference?

Yes, that is a fundamentally different approach. Imagine you had to explain every rule on earth to your child. You'd be at it for a very long time. Computers progress faster when they learn for themselves, just as we do.This is new. There is a whole wave of self-learning systems, such as IBM's Watson, which taught itself to play Jeopardy, a popular quiz show in the US – and it beat the best players in the world. Watson, AlphaGo from Google and other similar programs draw their own conclusions from very large data sets. They can "look at" 100 million MRI images within fractions of a second, for instance, and compare your cruciate ligament with an enormous sample group. No human being can do that.

With each new technology, we reexamine the human condition, humanity's existence and our understanding of ourselves as human beings.

How will the interaction between humans and machines develop?

We are at the very beginning. Look at past achievements, agriculture being a good example. The plow, the combine and the tractor made us stronger. We could say that the human spirit was paired with the physical strength of the machine. The same applied later to cars and airplanes. Today we have come to the point where machines no longer simply supplement the muscle power or motor abilities we lack; they can take over almost all of our repetitive activities. Just think of the self-driving car.

Can you give us another example that impresses you?

Technology is making great progress in medical diagnosis, for example. Artificial intelligence systems can already recognize certain skin diseases better than physicians can. Synthetic biology, which can already be used to create cells, is also very interesting. I believe that we will be able to get a grip on most cancers and circulatory diseases. And we will be able to double our life expectancy in the foreseeable future. This is only the beginning of world history. Ninety-nine percent of interesting things have not yet been invented. Artificial intelligence will relieve us of mentally undemanding activities. In the future, we will be able to concentrate on creative work. On the things that are really interesting.

Many people are afraid that robots are threatening their jobs. Rightly so?

Let's look at the past again. Just 300 years ago, almost everyone in Europe worked in agriculture or in a household. They plowed the fields, milked cows, washed, cleaned and cooked. That devoured unbelievable amounts of time. There was no electric power and there were no engines. Hygiene was miserable and medical care poor. Life expectancy in Europe was not even 30. If someone romanticizes about those times and wants to live back then, I can understand why technological progress raises concerns for that person…

That sounds ironic.

Then seriously: I believe that history supports my optimistic attitude that new technologies will make human beings' lives simpler. The balance is positive, even if you include dangerous technologies in the equation. Today, far fewer people die in war than 100 years ago. Fewer people starve and life expectancy is continuously increasing. Naturally, there are still many people who live in poverty or are even enslaved. That will not change with one stroke. But the Internet gives more people a chance to work on the progress of humanity – and profit from it as well. Five hundred years ago, most people could not even read or write. Today, thanks to the Internet, at least half of the population of the world has access to the entire, or to nearly the entire, knowledge of humanity. The world is in fact becoming flatter and flatter.

You've said your most important mission is to democratize knowledge. What do you mean by that?

It bothers my sense of justice that excellent education is very unequally distributed. Very few people have the chance to go to the best universities in the world, which remain closed to almost everyone. Yet there is hardly anything that is as well documented as the efficacy of education. People who are better educated lead better lives, have more money, fewer diseases, longer life expectancy and much more. That's why we created an online educational institution with Udacity, where we can give people a chance who had none before by offering them high quality education. We see education not in the sense of an expensive Rolex, but in the spirit of Ikea. We want to educate as many people as possible, as well as possible.

What is your favorite example of that?

There are so many. If I could only give one, it would be an American mother who had been a housewife for 20 years, taking care of her three children. She completed a programming course with Udacity and afterward was able to start at Google as a programmer. We have a large box of letters from people who thank us for making a positive change in their lives. These letters always sound very similar. These are people who have already finished a first career and now want to start a second one. We make that possible.  

Udacity's valued at one billion dollars today. In the beginning, you called your own offering lousy. Why?

We began with free courses, what are called massive open online courses. The completion rates were very bad, though. Only 5 percent of the participants successfully completed the courses. Today we have a success rate of 90 percent. We consciously took the path of launching something that was still incomplete. That meant we could feel the market from the outset and consistently align Udacity to people's needs.

What did you change?

We no longer regard education merely as conveying content but instead as a service, and we even give a guarantee. If the graduate does not find a job, we refund the course fee. We generally offer more than just online courses today. When someone comes to Udacity, they learn not only from books and videos, but also through very concrete projects based in practice. It's about making something oneself, about learning by doing. And our experts then give individual feedback for each project. It is a little like sports. You don't get into shape if you only watch others play. And you don't really learn anything if you only watch professors, without becoming actively involved.

Udacity has a social mission, but you nonetheless want to make money in the process – why?

It may sound odd, but we realized that it makes things simpler. We don't waste resources on fundraising, we have to be 100 percent aligned with our customers, and we also keep an eye on costs. We take great pains, however, to keep our offerings as inexpensive as possible for our customers. We are approximately 50 times cheaper than Stanford.

Udacity is a presence around the world – how do the cultural differences among the students find expression?

In Switzerland and Germany, education is regarded as completely or nearly free of charge, while it's normal in the US to pay for it. And in Europe, in contrast to the US, it is not yet common to go back to the university in the middle of a career in order to study for another degree. Our offshoots in China and India are just getting going. What I see there is that demand is unbelievably high. People take personal responsibility for their career and ask less for government aid. They pay for their own advanced education because they – rightly – think that, by doing so, they improve their chances and the investment is well worth it.

The ability and also the willingness to adapt your view of things to constantly changing circumstances are more important than your current knowledge base.

Your company assumes that the traditional education pattern "primary school – university – lifelong employment" is passé. Why?

In the US, it's already the case that 26 percent of the workforce moves from job to job, essentially working on demand. The average employee there stays at a job only four and a half years. People in Switzerland and Germany will have to more thoroughly dispense with the idea that they will have one job for life. Companies are increasingly forced to adapt to changing times.

That means job losses.

Yes. But there is also a positive side. People can always continue their development; new opportunities open up for them. Education evolves alongside work. People live longer and will have to continue educating themselves as they grow older.

The principle behind the university is indeed outmoded.

Can it really be the case that the best way to educate people was invented a thousand years ago? But the market for universities and other higher learning institutions is growing because they must focus not only on high school graduates, but on all of society. It's exactly the same in other industries: my insurance, my water and electricity company are there for me throughout my life – only my university is not. Although the need to learn is lifelong.

You have an eight-year old son. What is important to you in his education?

What we call here in California the growth mindset is very important to me. We view the brain like a muscle that can be trained and grow. It is important that my son has the ability to be curious about the world and to try new things. This ability and also the willingness to adapt your view of things to constantly changing circumstances are more important than your current knowledge base. The people of tomorrow will have to learn and improve continuously. That is a way of thinking, a mentality, that I want to give my son.

Is it working?

Jasper goes to a new experimental school that emphasizes projects and learning at one's own pace. He loves going to school and can't stand vacation.

What jobs will be in demand when Jasper is grown up?

Pardon my saying so, but that's the wrong question, it negates development. Twenty years ago, it was not possible to foresee that today, for example, search engine optimizers, mechatronic engineers or data analysts would be very much in demand. And the speed of change is only increasing. You can say with certainty that creative people will have better opportunities in the future. Technology jobs will play a big role, especially in industries that don't traditionally have a lot to do with technology. So, for instance, biology has already changed dramatically in the direction of data science. Big data will also change medicine, the law, and perhaps even historical research.
Whatever the industry, without an affinity for technology, a person will have fewer chances on the job market.

So it's not only the unions that are worried. Digitalization threatens many of today's work models. Are we moving toward a proletariat far removed from technology and removed from the job market too?

It's pointless to want to stop progress, it's never worked. It would be much more important for unions to promote continual training for their members so their people are prepared for new technologies. We shouldn't want to nail down the status quo; instead we should prepare ourselves for ever faster change.

It's not only fear of job loss that grows with digitalization. There's also the fear of loss of privacy.

That doesn't worry me a great deal. Look, it's not in the interest of any company to deploy knowledge against the will of its customers. Large technology companies are all based on the trust of their customers. If that trust is abused, the customers will soon be gone. I see many of these companies from the inside. My impression is that these companies' ethics are much more developed than it appears from the outside. In the end, they want to please their customers.

You were on Credit Suisse's Board of Directors, and you recently became an advisor to Credit Suisse Labs, a financial technology workshop in Silicon Valley. What is being developed there?

It's not only about trying out new technologies but, on a much more fundamental level, about strengthening innovative thinking and developing new business models. Credit Suisse has always been a progressive bank. It would like to ensure that it remains a technology leader with these labs.

Can you give us two or three specific examples?

The labs are currently under development; it would be just too early for me to reveal too much. But generally speaking, we are working on the big topics, like cyber security, mobile banking, new credit models and new databases for financial transactions, such as block chain technology. With digital systems, banking can become much more transparent, more economical and faster. Customers will profit from all of that too. We want to be able to offer them better and better products.

Finally, a personal question: You must have enjoyed reading the big science fiction novels as a youngster, such as those by H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick.

There you're mistaken. I preferred Heinrich Böll or Max Frisch. I've always been more interested in people than technologies. Technology is just a tool. In the long run, what concerns me in everything I do is people, empowering and promoting them – emboldening them to be free.