Flying cars, new thinking: Interview with tech star Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian Thrun is one of the few Germans who made it in Silicon Valley. He grew up in Germany, and the artificial intelligence expert made his career in the United States. As the head of a mysterious Google research laboratory, the 52-year-old has become the star of the technology scene.

WORLD: Above all, to get as far as you need an independent mind. How do you train yourself?

Sebastian Thrun: Before there was Google, there were of course libraries, magazines, newspapers. The flow of information was positive – but not as positive as it is today. And Larry Page and Sergey Brin logically wondered if we couldn’t provide all the information for free. Maybe they didn’t quite make it. But the impact Google has had on the world through logical thinking is huge. I also talk to Larry about the flying car that I develop with my company Kitty Hawk. The logical question at the beginning was whether it was the best idea for us to move on the floor. Or would it be better if we moved through the air? That is a logical question. Analog thinkers wouldn’t ask that way because we have known our cars for ages.


School closings due to Corona: the hour of e-learning

Learning at home shouldn’t look like this.
Picture: Picture Alliance

Schools are closed, lectures are canceled, no more time for education? Are you kidding me? Are you serious when you say that! If you want, you can access an enormous range.

LEere classrooms, lecture halls, libraries, canceled conferences, trips, club evenings: The Germans have to change their lives properly these days, this also applies to training – both small and large. On Monday, the children were allowed to go back to school to pick up books, notebooks, homework, and now the lessons are canceled.

Alexander Armbruster

Gustav Theile

On the other hand, the coming weeks do not have to be a learning break without learning, on the contrary. The Internet has long been a comprehensive and often free offer in almost all subject areas, in the form of short explanatory videos or long lectures, with and without integrated exercises or certified degrees.

An essential contact point is the video platform Youtube, which belongs to the American Internet company Google. Kai Schmidt, for example, teaches mathematics there, and more than 420,000 people now subscribe to his “Lehrerschmidt” channel. In more than 1500 different short videos, he introduces parabolas or linear functions and offers material for schoolchildren from the first to the tenth grade.

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An even larger audience is served by Daniel Jung, whose channel “Math by Daniel Jung” is subscribed to by more than 620,000 people and who even explains content right up to studying mathematics. He understands his offer on the one hand as tutoring for those who did not understand the content in class or study and need to rework it – but on the other hand as further training for those who would like to know more than they might learn in the class association at school.

Mirko Drotschmann again offers general knowledge on current political and social issues as “MrWissen2Go”. He explains there how right-wing extremist terror expresses itself in Germany, which goals the Fridays For Future movement pursues or what is behind the digital pact – there is of course currently documentation on how dangerous the corona virus is. He has almost 1.2 million subscribers there, a little less than 400,000 users have in turn registered on his more recent separate channel about history.

The Indian Sabin Mathew explains a wide range of technology topics on the “Learn Engineering” channel he has set up in English. Apart from the large platform, there are also various different offers. The “ANTON learning platform” ( is particularly suitable for pupils, especially in primary school.

For professionals, for example, the Internet University Udacity, founded by the German-born computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, offers complete courses in programming, artificial intelligence or cloud computing, some of which extend over months – including exams and final certificates. Computer scientist Andrew Ng, who teaches at Stanford University, offers a similar program with the Coursera Internet University he founded. With Udacity like Coursera, well-known corporations and universities work together. “The gap created by Corona can only be filled with adequate technical solutions and didactic concepts for distance learning in the media,” says David Meinhard from the Institute of German Business (IW) in Cologne.

Suddenly at the top of the app charts

A look at the app charts reveals how important e-learning has become in these times. All of a sudden, apps are being pushed to the top of the nationwide rankings there, which otherwise don’t even reach the top 100 of most downloads. One of these apps is called Study Smarter. It offers learning content for children, teenagers and students.

Maurice Khudhir is one of the four founders of the Munich start-up and reports in conversation with the F.A.Z. of an “incredible multiplication” of access to the platform. “At the weekend we were the top 1 in the German charts.” No other app was therefore downloaded more frequently than that of the Munich start-up, which was founded in early 2018 and, according to Khudhir, has just 30 employees.



“AI is a tool like a shovel”

Berlin Sebastian Thrun clearly feels comfortable in the midst of sensitive robots, intelligent houses and autonomous electric cars. Again and again the gaze of the technology pioneer is interested in the bustle of the world Bosch Connected World.

The Stuttgart technology company’s in-house exhibition is one of the most important meeting points of the year for the Internet of Things (IoT) in the German high-tech industry. The fact that the digital show is taking place this year in the halls of the old Postbahnhof in Berlin-Kreuzberg ensures the right start-up flair.

Today, the red brick building under the name Station Berlin is an exhibition center for the connected world of tomorrow. Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a crucial role in this – but not everyone is comfortable with the idea that intelligent machines are increasingly determining our lives: In Germany, in the EU and also in the USA, politicians and managers are not only seeing the development positively – There are increasing demands for rules for the use of AI.

Sebastian Thrun should know the dangers best. The 52-year-old founder of Google’s Future Factory X is one of the best-known high-tech pioneers that Germany has produced to date. Artificial intelligence is part of his DNA: Among other things, he was a professor of AI at the US elite university in Stanford. What does someone who is an icon of the Silicon Valley think about technology fears?

“There are indeed risks, as is the case with many new technologies, the scope of which is still unclear,” Thrun admits, stressing that “proactive regulation is very important for technologies in which misuse can lead to major and irreparable damage” ,

But he does not mean artificial intelligence, but primarily nuclear weapons. “Strict rules come too early for AI because we don’t even know where the abuse can be,” says the inventor. Even an abuse of artificial intelligence is not as serious as that of nuclear weapons. “So I think we should gradually improve AI regulation rather than building insurmountable hurdles now.”

We have withdrawn to a bar table, in the background trade fair visitors are talking shop about new sensors, the eyes and ears of an increasingly networked world.

There are a number of very promising applications for AI, Thrun says. For this, basic research must continue, and positive developments must not be blocked with hasty rules. “With Artificial Intelligence, we should wait and see if there is really any misuse, and then intervene with the companies and politicians,” says the robotics specialist, who was born in Solingen.

Not everyone shares Thrun’s belief in the blessing of technical progress: “The greatest danger is that a few will use artificial intelligence to make economic profit or gain political power,” warned Armin Grunwald in the Handelsblatt. The physicist heads the Bundestag’s office for technology assessment. The European Union has just issued a white paper warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence and called for strict rules against abuse.

And even in the tech-savvy USA, CEOs of tech companies are concerned: MicrosoftPresident Brad Smith has long called for state rules for the use of artificial intelligence. And even alphabetChief Sundar Pichai recognized the risks of intelligent face recognition at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“I have never seen a thought police”

“For me, AI is a tool, just like a shovel is a tool. Any tool can be misused, ”Thrun insists. It is therefore very important that we create rules that minimize abuse but do not exclude the benefits. He does not necessarily see a contradiction to the position of the EU: “The White Paper rightly says that the protection of the individual citizen must be at the forefront.” Thrun also calls for a “broad social dialogue” about the new technologies.

He does not see that AI could favor authoritarian regimes, for example by facilitating repression like in China: “There are many counterexamples,” says today’s technology entrepreneur, referring to the role of social media in the “Arab Spring”.

The new technologies have contributed to the fact that the exchange of information has become increasingly democratic. “In many totalitarian countries, such as Russia, governments are not happy about the encrypted video app TikTok.”

Why is it that Germany and Europe in particular often find it so difficult to digitize and innovate? “Germany has a different history than America. We know the collective guilt after the Second World War and the Cold War with the Stasi. ”These were also formative memories for him. “That is why Germany is the world leader in protecting privacy.” There is no similar history in the United States. “America is a very young country that is very technology and innovation enthusiastic. Without this basic optimism, we would not try many things and find out where the opportunities of the new technologies lie. “

He would like “that we in Germany are not less cautious but a little less skeptical about technological change.” And: “Take a look at the many startups in Berlin and Munich. The willingness to take risks has increased. There are several small companies that are worth a billion euros today. Germany has every reason to pat on the back. ”

Artificial intelligence – how dangerous is it really?

He understands Europe’s desire for digital sovereignty. However, he considers the EU’s plan to only store the data collected in Europe in a European cloud as a mistake. “For me this is an old answer to a new problem. Data can now be saved anywhere in the world and in Europe we are trying to limit it geographically, ”criticizes Thrun. “I can’t understand why storing data on Amazon or Google in the US should be more risky than storing the same data on Amazon or Google in Germany. “

He cannot do much with the criticism of “surveillance capitalism” by large technology groups: “Georg Orwell wrote his dystopian novel” 1984 “in 1948. A government has installed video screens on the walls that are a mixture of iPad and Amazon Echo. I have multiple iPads and multiple voice assistants at home, and the government has not suppressed them to this day. I have never seen a thought police like Orwell’s – neither in the USA nor here in Germany.

More: EU Commission plan: Europe should rise to digital power within five years.