- Sebastian Thrun — the CEO of KittyHawk, cofounder of Udacity, and pioneer of Google’s first self-driving car — delivered a keynote address at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference (ADIPEC).
- He spoke about how important artificial intelligence and machine learning will be in shaping the future of the industry.
- Prior to the address, Thrun spoke to Business Insider about the formative moments that have informed his career as a disruptor.
- Click here to read more BI Prime stories.
ABU DHABI — Upon first glance, Sebastian Thrun seems like an odd choice to deliver a keynote address at an oil and gas conference.
He’s perhaps best known for founding Google X, the tech giant’s secretive research and development facility. It was there that he pioneered the first self-driving car and laid the framework for now-thriving Waymo. He was also the mind behind Google Glass.
Even before those developments, Thrun was already an inductee to the National Academy of Engineering, having received the nod at the ripe age of 39.
He now serves as both CEO of KittyHawk — an electric-aircraft manufacturer — and is the cofounder of Udacity, which offers online courses on such subjects as data science and artificial intelligence.
It’s his work in AI that likely secured his invitation to speak at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference (ADIPEC). After he delivered a rousing opening presentation that played more like a Silicon Valley pitch — a spiel featuring video clips and peppered with quotes from the likes of Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and even Vladimir Putin — Thrun sat down and was asked specifically about the energy industry.
The questions came on the heels of an example he presented during his preamble, where he claimed the forward-thinking application of AI had boosted profits at Royal Dutch Shell by $7 billion. (Note: This exact figure was unable to be confirmed.)
How does he think Shell pulled that off, and how can their success be applied to other firms in the field?
“It’s the intelligence in imaging when you do analyses of potential new sites,” Thrun said. “It’s the processing of oil. It’s the optimiziation of the distribution chain. It’s the optimization of the supply chain. It’s the repetitive work that’s done in the office to make this all happen.”
He continued: “None of these singular things does it. But if you have a data science mindset — an AI mindset — then you can chisel every problem using data.”
The logic underlying Thrun’s response is central to his overall belief around not just energy, but any industry looking to innovate quickly and set itself up for future success. He looks at the world’s tech juggernauts as a prime example of this line of thinking.
“When you look at the big tech companies that we all adore: Facebook, Google, Amazon — these companies are massive AI companies,” he said. “Everything they do is based on data. And that data thinking gives them a completely new level of scale.”
“It’s important for companies,” he added. “You have to do it or get left behind.”
Thrun likes to think big
As evidenced by Thrun’s oil-industry comments, he’s a big thinker. It’s a quality he attributes to a childhood spent rebelling against directions, preferring to carve his own path.
“As a kid, I never wanted to be told what to do,” he told Business Insider in an interview before his keynote address. “In fact, if you told me to do one thing, I would do the opposite.”
This restlessness was what ultimately led Thrun to leave his position as a tenured professor at Stanford after 19 years to join Google, he said. It was there that he says he learned a new skill: how to take technology and build it at scale.
This breakthrough seems to inform all of Thrun’s grand visions. In discussion, he riffs casually about freeing the world of traffic, drastically reducing transportation times through self-driving aircraft, spotting skin cancer using iPhones, curing Alzheimers and obesity, and revolutionizing education as we know it.
For those who find his ideas far-flung, he points to his success pioneering self-driving cars. When Alphabet CEO Larry Page — whom Thrun describes as a friend — asked him to take on the project, he had reservations. Ten engineers and 18 months later, they’d reached a solution.
But he still hasn’t won everyone over. Especially not the automakers whose industry he’s attempting to upend.
“I don’t think the car companies take me seriously right now,” he told Business Insider with a grin. “But four or five years ago, when I was working on a self-driving car now known as Waymo, the car companies didn’t take me seriously either.”
He concluded: “These technologies looked like science fiction for a long time to most of us, and very few of us realized how real they really were. When it sinks in that they’re real, then the world changes.”