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“Technology gives us super-human powers”

Summary:
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.

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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.

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