This is the headquarters of Udacity, billed as the “21st-century university,” where [Sebastian] Thrun is taking his next big crack at the next big problem: education. While he still spends a day a week at Google, where he is a fellow, and remains an unpaid research professor at Stanford University (his wife, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, is a professor in comparative literature), Udacity is the place the 45-year-old, German-born roboticist calls home.
Udacity has its roots in the experience Thrun had in 2011 when he and Peter Norvig opened the course they were teaching at Stanford, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” to the world via the Internet. “I was shocked by the number of responses,” he says. The class made the New York Times a few months later, and enrollment surged from 58,000 to 160,000. “I remember going to a Lady Gaga concert at the time and thinking, ‘I have more students in my class than you do in your concert,’ ” Thrun says. But it wasn’t just numbers, it was who was taking the class: “People wrote me these heartbreaking e-mails by the thousands. They were people from all walks of life—business people, high-school kids, retired people, people on dialysis.” Thrun, whose demeanor is a blend of continental sang-froid and Silicon Valley sunniness (he peppers the precise speech you might expect from a German roboticist with intensifiers like “super” and “insanely”), had a moment: “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m reaching people that really need my help.’ ” - Continue reading at Smithsonian.com.