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Immigration and Creative Destruction

Article by John Prestbo February 13, 2013 //   3 minute read

Every once in a while you come across somebody who seems to embody the qualities of independence, ambition, and brain power that we associate with the best and brightest, past and present. Qualities, I might add, that we’ll need in abundance as we aim to accelerate U.S. economic growth.

Recently, I became acquainted with Sebastian Thrun via the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Interview. Thrun is brainiac-in-chief at Google’s futuristic skunk works and has a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Bonn. He emigrated from Germany in search of “the lack of authority, unlike Germany,” to pursue his specialty in artificial intelligence.

One of his projects at Google is the self-driving car that so far has logged hundreds of thousands of miles without a human at the controls. Technology has already revamped the music, cable TV, and book publishing industries. Maybe someday this driverless car will put the auto industry on the defensive.

But Thrun shrugs off the “creative destruction” that technology often leaves in its wake. He doesn’t care about preserving existing institutions — or even his own achievements. His mission is to develop technology that benefits masses of people (such as motorists).

Another of Thrun’s passions is online education. While its image is somewhat tarnished today, he nevertheless sees it both as a way to reach people who might otherwise never come in contact with higher education and as a way to improve the overall level of education. He and a colleague conducted a combined classroom-online course in artificial intelligence at Stanford University. More than 150,000 people worldwide signed up, and 23,000 completed the course. The top 410 exam grades were earned by online students. Thrun has formed a company called Udacity to attack the problem of how to deliver the optimal online education. “What I see is democratizing education will change everything,” he says. If he is right, he will be another immigrant who revolutionized the way we do things.