Call it the rise of the robots.
Over the past decade the obsession with artificial intelligence has captivated people worldwide. You need to look no further than every other "Battlestar Galactica"-like TV show and movie being created or even to NASA's Robonaut and Japan's "humanoid" robots, which can walk, talk, think for themselves, be a nurse or even pour drinks.
So perhaps it's not surprising that when two Stanford University professors came up with the idea to offer their Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class online for free, people flocked to it as it were a viral video.
But the demand for the course is more than the professors likely ever expected. As of midday Tuesday, the class, which usually attracts 200 students at Stanford, has more than 64,000 people signed up – an impressive feat considering the university has less than 7,000 undergraduate students.
"We have been absolutely ecstatic about the many, many of you who are up to take this challenging class," professor Sebastian Thrun said in a video posted on a website for the class.
It's unclear whether all these people will go through with taking the class, which starts in October, but there are a few interesting things worth noting about it.
For one, the folks behind this class aren't your regular run-of-the-mill college professors.
Thrun was thrust into the spotlight after taking part in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge, a contest in which participants had to create a car that could drive itself 142 miles from Barstow, California, to the Nevada border. He became known as the brain behind Google's "driverless car" after his team won the challenge. Fortune also named him a runner-up in the academic category in the magazine's list of the smartest people in technology.
Thrun will be teaching the class with another hard hitter in the field, Peter Norvig. Norvig is better known as director of research for Google. He also has been the top man at the Computational Sciences Division at NASA's Ames Research Center – or the chief computer scientist at the space agency. He helped develop the Remote Agent software that operated NASA's Deep Space 1 into space – a major artificial intelligence milestone that led to a lot of the work behind the Mars Rover.
Thrun and Norvig told The New York Times that they were inspired to do the class by an MIT engineer who created a nonprofit group to help put video tutorials online to teach others.
While online courses are nothing knew, throwing the power of arguably two of the smartest men in a field that attracts mass attention, could mean a shift in how we educate. In this case, participants won't be able to get credit for the class at Stanford but will receive "a statement of accomplishment" when the course is completed.
If you're worried about being overwhelmed by the content and not having classmates available to work it out with, don't worry – there's already a study group created on Reddit. And according to The New York Times, people from high-schoolers to retirees as well as those from more than 175 countries have signaled interest in taking the class.
“The vision is: Change the world by bringing education to places that can’t be reached today,” Thrun told the Times.