If he was good enough…

Standford's Course on AI

Since the beginning of October I’ve been following the online AI course from Standford, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. In the last two months, I’ve given up a great part of my free time to look at videos, do quizzes, read clarifications on the AI page on Reddit and complete assignments. I will not say it was not worth it. It definitely was. I’ve
learned so much and I already have ideas on how to use Artificial Intelligence (specifically Machine Learning) in my own field (Computer Security).

Last night, I noticed a link on the course website that lead me to a YouTube video
of the latest Google+ Hangout where two AI professors, along with Sal Khan, the founder
of Khan Academy and a handful of students from some universities in the US where talking about the future of education and how these new ways of teaching are “reinventing education”.

I was listening to theirĀ  discussion when the following comment by Prof. Thrun really jumped out of the page and hit me on the head…

“When I got my higher education in Germany I’ve got to admit that
it wasn’t particularly good. In my own field of AI, my professor
had written a thesis 20 years earlier and he was teaching classes
only on his thesis and the reason why he was in my university was
because he couldn’t get a job at MIT or Berkeley. If I had followed
his advice I would have never gone anywhere in my life…”
(Minutes: 8:36 – 8:55 or so)

I am not doubting that Prof. Thrun’s recollection about his earlier years and his professor in Germany is true but the sentence that I’ve underlined is wrong, in more than one ways. In my humble opinion, it is an insult to all professors outside of the US (even inside the US and not part of the Elite 50 or so) who for one reason or another are not part of the American system of education.

One may claim that it was a comment specific to his professor but it really didn’t sound like that. Sometimes, when people makeĀ  generalizing statements, and they feel that it was too much, they immediately correct it by providing a clarification e.g. “That’s not to
say that all universities outside of the US are bad” or “This is obviously a case specific
to me and my own professor and surely doesn’t apply to everyone…”. But no such attempt was made. What this statement does (at least what it did to me) is somehow rob one of his sense of achievement, unless that was accomplished through a top university in the US. It degrades tens of years of hard work from professors all around the globe and tells them “If you were good enough, you would be at MIT, or Berkeley, or some other university that I approve of”.

There are many reasons for someone not to go to the US. Family reasons, cultural reasons, philosophical, social and ethical reasons. While many have tried to join a university in the US and haven’t succeeded that doesn’t make them washed out. That doesn’t make them substandard. It just makes them professors in 195 out of 196 countries in the world.

Nick Nikiforakis

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