Sebastian Thrun: The man making magic at Google

Sebastian Thrun burns with a child-like enthusiasm for turning the wildest of dreams into reality. But just what is the German-born inventor working on behind the closed doors of Google X?

Earlier this month, German-born inventor Sebastian Thrun posted an online image of his son being swung round by his father, says the Huffington Post. But "Jasper, my son, and me" is no ordinary photo it is one of the first images to be captured using a prototype of Google's "augmented reality computer specs". If some pundits are to be believed, these could prove as disruptive a technology as the smartphone.

The firm is keeping precise details of "Project Glass" under wraps at its mysterious Google X labs (see below). But it would be hard to find a better ambassador for it than Thrun. As one blogger notes, he "brims with an infectious delight for discovery and invention".

A former director of Stanford's artificial intelligence lab, Thrun has won countless international prizes and is a founder head of Google X. But it is his quiet charisma that compels. After a recent appearance (complete with specs) on the Charlie Rose chat show, viewers rhapsodised about his "child-like excitement and happiness with the toys he is creating".

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Thrun, 45, has three big projects on the go, says Wired. As well as Google Glasses, he's the moving force behind the firm's self-driving "robocar"; and this year he quit Stanford to focus on his new online university, Udacity "our attempt to really democratise higher education".

He describes Google's self-driving Lexus as "magical" and thinks it could combat road deaths. Meanwhile, Udacity saw 160,000 people register for a course previously reserved for 200 Stanford students. For Thrun, the mass education experience was transforming. "I feel like there's a red pill and a blue pill," he says. "You can take the blue pill and go back to Stanford... but I've taken the red pill and I've seen Wonderland."

Born in the Rhineland steel town of Solingen, Thrun started developing robots and artificial intelligence systems while studying for a PhD in Bonn. In 1997, he co-developed the world's first robotic tour guide for the Deutsches Museum. A follow-up was created for the Smithsonian museum in Washington a year later.

After moving to the States, he experimented with interactive humanoid robots at Carnegie Mellon University. But the machine that put him on the map was a comparatively simple one: "Stanley", a self-navigating vehicle. It won the government's $1m Darpa Grand Challenge, and became the prototype for Google's self-driving car.

For all his breakthroughs, Thrun, who joined Google on sabbatical from Stanford in 2007 and never left, claims to be "immensely frustrated" with the progress of artificial intelligence. "In bits and pieces we have exceeded human intelligence we have better chess players, for instance. But in the mundane, daily things we're still behind." Yet "I haven't given up on [it] at all", he adds. "I just want to fix it. I want to make machines that are really smart."

The lab turning wild dreams into reality

In the few years since its inception, Google X has acquired a mythical status as "a lab of wildest dreams", so secret that most Google employees don't even know it exists, says The New York Times. "One Google engineer familiar with Google X said it was run as mysteriously as the CIA with two offices: a nondescript one for logistics on the company's Mountain View campus, and one for robots in a secret location."

Among the 100 or so futuristic ideas reportedly under research are talking refrigerators, dinner plates with links to social networks and space elevators. But the first fruits of the lab (the particular baby of Google founder Sergey Brin) are beginning to seep into the outside world. "Anyone driving the twists of Highway 1 between San Francisco and LA may have glimpsed a Toyota Prius with a curious funnel-like cylinder on the roof." Expect to see more of these.

Truly autonomous cars are probably years from mass-production. But the financial rewards from Google Glasses (which overlay common smartphone apps on a small lens in front of the wearer's right eye) could be rolling in soon, says Kashmir Hill in Forbes. "You can instantly see the appeal of wearing glasses with a built-in camera that [let] you take photos and video your life... as it happens" particularly when they're linked to memo, email, social networking apps, or Google Street View (another Thrun innovation). More work is needed on styling "I'm holding out for Google contacts" but some analysts envisage a blockbuster product that could knock Apple off the top spot.

Steve Jobs, who once vowed to wage "thermonuclear war" on Google, must be turning in his grave, says Alex Moore on But the Google X lab seems "dedicated to dreaming up the future landscape of technology in a way that no-one but Jobs has dared". As Thrun told Fast Company magazine: "There's almost no problem that can't be solved... History has proved it over and over again".