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 their  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 make  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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5 Responses to If he was good enough…

  1. blugra says:

    The funny thing is the “top” university doesn’t seem the least bit elite.
    The ai course had many absolutely trivial questions that you would expect to see in 7-9 grade. The % of 100% right students seems quite high. If this is any indicator of their lectures im not impressed at all regarding their education.

    Another example that indicates the same:
    There was a green car challenge were those top universitys with million dollar budgets were running not significantly better than some non-university kids with a way smaller budget.

  2. Dimitar Sht. Shterionov says:

    Hi both you – the author and blugra.
    Nick, I think you know that there exist people that close themselves (or rather their views) in restricted communities (or perspectives) like the USAmericans, Belgians, Greeks, Bulgarians, and others. Some individuals are more (in)closed, others – more open. The former base their understanding of the world exclusively on their beliefs. For Mr. Thrun the quality of teaching/education is higher in MIT than in KULeuven, or Sofia University, but… what I have seen in this course of AI is much lower level than the AI tought by Prof. De Schreye in the MAI at KULeuven.
    But, of course that is my opinion… as Mr. Thrun has his view over the quality…
    As I see the things – either you built a robot and prove him he is wrong 🙂 or you just feel happy/proud of yourself that you haven’t restricted your points of view about … a lot of things, including education quality.
    This video is in Bulgarian, it goes over robots and robotic devices, please watch from 0:33 to 0:45 – a robot controlled by a cockroach 🙂

  3. Pedro Costa says:


    I think you are clearly overreacting! Prof. Thrun was talking about what his teacher thought! That the teacher wanted to be at MIT or Berkeley and because he couldn’t get a job there he was at that university and he had no enthusiasm on his work and teaching!
    Don’t start assuming that he is doing generalizations and offenses!


    • nikifor says:

      With all due respect Pedro, your comment is based mostly on speculation of what Prof. Thrun meant, while my comment was about what he said. You have no way of knowing all the things you state in the 3rd sentence of your reply (unless of course you are either Prof. Thrun or the German professor).

      Best Regards

      • Pedro Costa says:


        You are absolutely right and I talked about MY interpretation of the words he said.
        When we hear something that we can’t ask for clarification… given the context in that we heard we can interpret it in several ways… I choose to interpret as I told you and give the benefit of doubt to Prof. Thrun that always seemed to me as a very nice person and a passioned professor. In addition I had several professors in the University that I felt lacked any enthusiasm and seemed clearly that were there given classes because couldn’t be on other places and others that were really inspiring and vibrant!
        You choose the other way and I of course respect your opinion!



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