The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major disruptor across the globe, with many countries instituting lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. While most industries are reeling from the impacts of this once-in-a-century event, the tech industry is already identifying the opportunities that lurk beneath the surface of all the suffering.
Indeed, the tech industry goes through major disruptions every few years, making it uniquely positioned to make the most of the new realities in the wake of the coronavirus.
In this podcast, Tobias Schlottke interviews Prof. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, founder of Google X, co-founder of Udacity, and CEO of Kitty Hawk Corporation. They discuss how COVID-19 has disrupted the way we learn requiring a shift from what Prof. Thrun calls “the 18th-century methods” that are still employed in regular classrooms.
“Whatever your thought would happen in the next two years happens the next quarter. And really sharp CEOs—from Bosch to BMW and many others—have realized this is the time to push innovation and digitization inside their own companies,” Prof. Thrun says.
The 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge
At 53, Sebastian admits that he entered the startups’ space a little older than most, yet he has disrupted quite a number of spaces already. His guiding mantra: making the world a better place, and endless learning.
“I love learning,” he says, “If I'm really good at something I quit, I don't want to be good. I want to be bad so that I have a chance to really learn new things in my life.”
It would appear that it is this mindset that thrust him into the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge with three Stanford grad students. Together, they built Stanley, a robot developed to drive with no manual interventions.
In the podcast, Sebastian explains how winning this challenge put him on the map as a self-driving car expert, and led the way for him to become a startup founder. He also explains how they built Stanley as well as how they are using the same approach in machine learning and artificial intelligence to build autonomous planes at Kitty Hawk.
Self-driving, Flying Cars
Sebastian sees autonomous planes (“flying cars”) as the future solution to traffic jams.
“If you were able to take urban traffic/city traffic into the air, you would never ever have a traffic jam,” he says, “We would really free the world from traffic.”
He predicts this future to be less than a decade away. In fact, he sees the possibility of flying cars becoming a reality on the streets before self-driving cars.
If I'm correct about this—because flying is even self-driving—then self-driving cars might never materialize. We might go straight to flying cars.”
Early Cancer Detection Using Artificial Intelligence
Sebastian has lost several family members to cancer. His wishlist includes creating solutions in medicine, particularly in cancer detection.
“Cancer is one of these diseases that I think are (mostly) treatable and curable if you catch them early. And the problem is not treatment: the problem is detection. It is diagnostics.”
The professor explains how a few years back he joined hands with some Google students at Stanford and trained an iPhone using artificial intelligence to detect skin cancer.
“We measured the iPhone's ability—using machine learning—to detect melanomas and compared it to board-certified human dermatologists, the best doctors in the world, here at Stanford and we found that the iPhone can do as well as the best human doctors.”
“So, if I had time to restart my life, I would actually really seriously look into medical diagnostics.”
Germany's Standing in the AI and Software World
A German himself, Sebastian Thrun has always been impressed by Germany’s ability to engineer, build, and export high-quality products and competently rival other nations that lead the way in innovation. Tobias asked him about Germany’s ability to keep up with countries like the U.S. and China, especially in AI.
“(Germany) invented the steam engine, invented the train, the car, the motorcycle, the telephone, and so many other things. Germany is an amazing country!”
He hopes the federal government or private sector in Germany looks into investing in artificial intelligence the way that has happened in the U.S. and China.
“I believe that AI will eventually be able to do everything we do that's highly repetitive,” he asserts, “Brace for a future where 90% of your work is done by your machines.”