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Award Recipient 2020: Sebastian Thrun

Photo: Daniel Kunzfeld

Technology Trailblazer Sebastian Thrun to Receive Aachen Engineering Award

Professor Sebastian Thrun is a renowned expert on artificial intelligence and was ranked fourth among the one hundred most influential thinkers in the world by the US journal Foreign Policy. It all began with his studies in computer science at the universities of Hildesheim and Bonn, where he received his doctorate in 1995. Three years later, Thrun went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as an assistant professor before moving to California in 2003 - as associate professor and then full professor and head of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University. Together with the Stanford Racing Team, he developed the self-driving Volkwagen Touareg “Stanley,” which won the two million US dollar DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005. Soon after arriving in Silicon Valley, Thrun came into contact with Google co-founder Larry Page, who was impressed by the scholar’s innovative and visionary spirit. In 2011, he joined Google and was entrusted with launching the Google X research department, where Google Street View, the Google Glass smart glasses, and the self-driving car were then developed.

For his outstanding visionary work, Professor Sebastian Thrun will be awarded the Aachen Engineering Prize, or Aachener Ingenieurpreis, by RWTH and the City of Aachen in a ceremony at Aachen City Hall on Friday, September 4, 2020. “Sebastian Thrun is a globally recognized technology pioneer. The German-born computer scientist embodies digital progress like no other and has been providing groundbreaking impetus in the research fields of artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, and the digital transformation of higher education for more than 20 years,” explains the Rector of RWTH Aachen University, Professor Ulrich Rüdiger.

“Our prize winner has the special gift of taking visionary ideas and turning them into real technologies,” emphasizes the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Aachen Engineering Award and President of the Association of German Engineers (Verein Deutscher Ingenieure VDI), Dr. Volker Kefer. “Artificial intelligence holds tremendous potential for the development of our economy. We are facing profound changes and can expect them to unfold in a highly dynamic manner,” Aachen’s Lord Mayor Marcel Philipp continues. Known as a city of science, Aachen has the ambition to influence and guide this development and – along with its many innovative companies and bright minds – shape the region to the residents’ benefit.

At the core of Thrun’s visions is artificial intelligence. He already discovered it as a primary focus during his fundamental studies of computer science, and he has been content to stick with it ever since. The future is already here for the AI specialist, and he knows that education is of the utmost importance. That is also why he founded the globally active online academy Udacity in 2012 – to spread knowledge more widely than ever before and to make it accessible to everyone. The starting point was the lecture “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” which, as a Stanford professor, he held as a Massive Open Online Course (openly accessible online courses) and in which 160,000 students took part worldwide. That the German technology pioneer still has many visionary ideas is also demonstrated by the company he founded, “Kitty Hawk”. There, he is working on his idea of an air taxi, having built more than 150 prototypes with his team and having already completed over 26,000 test flights. One thing runs like a red thread through all the projects the tech pioneer is involved in: “In the end, the objective must be to improve people’s lives. That must be the big common goal,” says Thrun.

The Aachen Engineering Award is jointly awarded by RWTH and the City of Aachen - with the kind support of the Association of German Engineers VDI as the prize donor. Every year, the prize is awarded to a personality whose work has made a significant contribution to the positive perception or further development of engineering. This is the seventh time the award has been presented. The first prize winner was Professor Berthold Leibinger (died 2018), partner of TRUMPF GmbH + Co KG. He was followed by Professor Franz Pischinger, founder of Aachen-based FEV GmbH; astronaut Thomas Reiter; the long-time director of the Machine Tool Laboratory WZL at RWTH Aachen University, Professor Manfred Weck; Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, microbiologist and co-inventor of the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors; and, last year, the entrepreneur Hans Peter Stihl.