Monday, April 1, 2013

Only in Silicon Valley


One of the benefits of being at a university like Stanford is that we occasionally get the opportunity to see up close the emergence of an amazing mathematical talentsomeone who may turn out to be the next Euler or Gauss.

Just over 18 months ago, Avril Wan was, to all appearances, just another bright fourteen-year-old living in Taiwan, where her father Yewful Wan runs a large shipping company and her Welsh-born mother Melanie Wan is a university mathematics professor (and a former student of Timothy Gowers in Cambridge).

Then, in September 2011, Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun and Google researcher Peter Norvig offered what turned out to be the first of what is now a flood of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which make advanced university courses available to the entire world over the Internet. Ms. Wan enrolled for that first MOOC, in artificial intelligence, and was the only student to score a perfect 100% for the course.

When initial investigations made it clear that Ms. Wan’s performance was legitimate, Thrun moved quickly, and arranged for Stanford to offer her a place in Stanford’s famed Symbolic Systems Program (which has produced a whole string of graduates who have founded and led successful Silicon Valley companies, such as Reid Hoffman, who founded LinkedIn, and Marissa Meyer, an early employee of Google and the newand controversialCEO of Yahoo!).

By the time Wan arrived at Stanford, Thrun had left to form Udacity, a Silicon Valley start-up offering free online courses to the world, and the newly arrived student, who had just turned 15 (and was accompanied by her mother), was assigned to the educational care of another famous Stanford mathematics professor, Persi Diaconis, known for his ability to see familiar problems in novel ways.

In late spring of 2012, there was a buzz across the Palo Alto campus when it seemed that, under minimal guidance from Diaconis, the young Ms. Wan had solved the notorious P = NP problem, but Ron Graham of the University of California at San Diego quickly found an error, pointing out that she had implicitly assumed the existence of a complete, two-valued measure on the power set of the natural numbersa question first raised by the famous (Second World) Wartime mathematician Stan Ulam.

Meanwhile, Ms. Wan’s mathematics blog had started to attract attention back in her home country, making her somewhat of a Taiwan celebrity. In particular, motivational videos she had posted on YouTube to encourage young Taiwanese girls to study mathematics, eventually came to the attention of News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch, who pledged $5M to make her videos available throughout the developing world.

But then, online tech journalist Dan Gillmor posted an article pointing out that Murdoch’s funding was contingent on the distribution being restricted to streaming to tablets supplied by his own, for-profit company Amplify. If so, that would surely have killed the deal, since Ms. Wan recognizes the value of free educational resources to the development of the less affluent countries of the world.

At that point, events started to unfold at the kind of breakneck speed that only happens in Silicon Valley. Ms. Wan, still just 15 years old, remember, and technically without even a high school diploma, found herself inside the Palo Alto offices of the famed venture capital company Greylock Partners, which was willing to commit $100M to fund the establishment of a global, free, online mathematics education platform, tentatively called “Wan World.”

With Greylock having been early stage funders of some of the most successful start-up companies in recent years, most of which required several years before anyone had the faintest idea how they would make money, that interest was all it took to unleash the floodgates. Within a few days, Ms. Wan (or rather, the group of advisers her father quickly assembled to cope with the interest) had been approached by Apple, Google, and Facebook, each of which wanted to develop the platform on which Wan World would run, and by McGraw Hill, Pearson Education, and Amazon, who wanted to own the content.

Meanwhile, despite all this frenzy, Ms. Wan herself seems remarkably unfazed by the sudden changes in her life. Speaking to an unusually full room in a recent meeting of Stanford’s Education’s Digital Future lecture/discussion series (which is where I first met her), she concluded her presentation by admitting to her fellow students, “Like you, right now, I just want to graduate.”  

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