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Free Artificial Intelligence Class Attracts Thousands of People

Two computer science geniuses have eager learners across the globe ready to go to virtual school.

In an average year, 200 students take the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class offered at Stanford University. But thanks to a new experiment in distributed education, this fall, hundreds of thousands of students might be learning how to make "computer software that reasons about the world around it." For the first time, the class will be offered for free to anyone across the globe, and in the two weeks since registration opened, nearly 90,000 participants have signed up.

So what's the big draw? The two professors, Peter Norvig, a computer science genius who's written the definitive text on A.I. and is director of research at Google, and Sebastian Thrun, known for his trailblazing work in robotics and for running the Google driverless car project, are serious experts in the field. Eager learners across the globe are jumping at the chance to attend a virtual class taught by these two.

What also helps is that Norvig and Thrun are making a real effort to give virtual students the kind of education normally reserved for attendees of elite schools. Unlike other free courses offered by universities, the duo isn't just sticking a syllabus up on a website for people to follow on their own. They plan to make serious use of technology in order to give virtual lectures covering the "same level of material" as an in-person class. Also on deck are plans to give feedback on assignments and answer student questions.

Since Norvig and Thrun also intend to give the virtual learners the same assignments and tests that in-person students will receive. That means participants will need a fairly solid background in math and science in order to keep up, and, like real students, they'll have to complete assignments on time and actively participate in virtual discussions.

Students like Brian Kottonya, an instructor who teaches technical English to engineers at Linnaeus University in Sweden and has developed virtual courses in the past, are eager for the challenge. Kottonya says he signed up because the "future is about being global educators in borderless classrooms" and taking this A.I. course "will be a great opportunity to experience that."

Of course, Kottonya and other virtual students won't get a formal grade or college credit, but they will get a "statement of accomplishment" if they successfully complete the course. And, more importantly, they'll have acquired the invaluable knowledge of how to design A.I. computer software. If you're down to learn about A.I., there's still time to sign up. Class doesn't begin till October 10.

screenshot via YouTube user SebThrun

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