Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

70,000 Students Flock to Free Online Course in Artificial Intelligence


Credit: Mathieu Thouvenin/Flickr

Stanford University has opened up to the public an introductory artificial intelligence class, taught by two luminaries in the field. Anyone with high-speed Internet, anywhere in the world, can enroll in the online course.

Just don't expect a lot of face time with the professors. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 70,000 people had signed up to receive registration information for the AI course, which runs from October until December. Participants will be allowed to register in late summer, according to the course Web site.

Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Part of the course's appeal is surely in the instructors, Sebastian Thrun (right) and Peter Norvig (above left). Thrun is a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford who led the winning team at the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, an autonomous vehicle race traversing 132 miles through the Mojave Desert. He also directs the Google driverless car project, which has turned unmanned vehicles loose on the streets of California. Norvig is a veteran computer scientist who has held top positions at NASA and Sun Microsystems and is now the director of research at Google. He is also the co-author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, a leading AI textbook. (That textbook is recommended but not required for the online course, but Norvig "is donating all royalties earned from his text to charity," according to the course Web site.)

The course will feature video lectures, online quizzes, automatically graded homework assignments, and the chance to ask questions via an online aggregator that will route the top-ranked submissions to the instructors.

Thrun and Norvig told The New York Times that they had been inspired by the example of the Khan Academy, a series of video lessons on math, science and finance delivered via YouTube. "The vision is: change the world by bringing education to places that can't be reached today," Thrun told the Times.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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