Luis Von Ahn: Crowdsourcing and Modern Language Education Pioneer

Regarded as a pioneer of crowdsourcing, and the inventor of reCAPTCHA, explore with Luis von Ahn as he introduces to you the world's most popular language-learning site.
Birthplace: Guatemala
Industry: Tech and Education
Success: Co-founder and CEO of Duolingo; inventor of reCAPTCHA, which was sold to Google in 2009
Recognition: MIT Technology Review's TR35: Young Innovators Under 35
Honors: MacArthur Fellowship in 2006

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Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Nov 25, 2022
Luis Von Ahn: Crowdsourcing & Language Education Pioneer
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Languages–Vision of Life

“Nǐ hǎo ma?”

“Bonjour! Comment ça va?”

“¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?”

“Hello, how are you?”

Languages are beautiful gifts that identify each country. On top of that, you get to experience each nation by speaking just their language, which helps you connect to a person sentimentally.

You can bridge the language barriers and even help your brain adapt to certain situations through this.

Luis von Ahn representing Federico Fellini’s quote through languages

This is true with Luis von Ahn. A native of Guatemala saw how true it is to be seeing a different vision, and he chose languages to reflect the goodness in life.

Luis Von Ahn: Languages as Vision of Life

But before that: he started from a different path that only technology glues between languages and the path of secrets. 

So, what is this secret?

Early Life of Luis Von Ahn

Von Ahn Family

Even though Von Ahn now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he is fiercely proud of his Guatemalan heritage.

Luis was born in Guatemala City. A native Guatemalan of German-Jewish descent, he was raised in a wealthy family with both of his parents working as physicians. 

A great privilege for him was studying English at a private language school in Guatemala City. 

Luis quietly acknowledges that a large part of his success stems from being fortunate enough to be taught English. He is a native Spanish speaker who claims his mother, who is a doctor, insisted on his learning English from an early age.

Early Life of Luis Von Ahn in Guatemala

Luis’s fascination with technology and computer science began at eight when his mother bought him a Commodore 64 computer.

Luis Von Ahn’s Education

Luis Von Ahn began studying at Duke University at age 18 and received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. Graduating in 2000 and received an academic honor as summa cum laude

Later, Von Ahn received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University in 2005 and then started teaching. Luis Von Ahn joined Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science in 2006 as a faculty member.

Notable Duke University Alumni Infographics

Early Career of Luis Von Ahn

Von Ahn’s First Job Ventures

Cryptology was one of Von Ahn's early research topics. In this field, secure communication methods in the presence of a third party are examined and practised. 

Through this research, done together with John Langford and Nicholas J. Hopper, steganography was first defined as the practice of concealing messages, images, videos, or files within a message, image, video, or file.

Luis von Ahn was the first to propose formal steganography definitions and demonstrate that private-key steganography is achievable. 

Cryptography Infographics

A cryptographic technique encrypts messages to only the intended recipient, and the sender can see them. The word means hidden, coming from the Greek word kryptos.

Cryptography is used today to secure digital information. Data encryption is a branch of computer science that transforms data into formats that unauthorized individuals cannot view.

The encryption of a message in which other characters replace letters is an example of basic cryptography.

reCAPTCHA

Being interested in cryptography, Luis von Ahn and his advisor, Manuel Blum, pioneered work on CAPTCHAs in 2000.

They developed a visual recognition test to prevent bots from spamming websites, a series of squiggly letters only humans can recognize. This was known as the Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart, or CAPTCHA.

Luis von Ahn and Manuel Blum pioneered work on CAPTCHAs in 2000

This test is heavily based on the father of cryptography and computer science, Alan Turing. True to its name, Turing’s test is the backbone of how CAPTCHAs work but only in reverse. The goal is to identify the human rather than the computer.

These devices operate by websites to prevent automated programs or bots from committing large-scale abuse, such as creating large accounts or purchasing large amounts of tickets for resale by scalpers.

Luis von Ahn’s Ph.D. thesis, published in 2005, was the first to use the phrase "human computation," which he invented to describe approaches that mix human and machine intelligence to tackle issues that neither can answer alone.

Luis Von Ahn's Ph.D. thesis is also the first on Games With A Purpose, or GWAPs, which are human-played games that provide valuable computation.

One famous example is the ESP Game, an online game in which two randomly paired people are shown the same picture without being able to communicate.

Each person must identify several words or phrases that describe the image within a time restriction, and a match earns them points.

This match turns out to be a good description of the image, and it can be stored in a database for better image search technology. Google licensed the ESP Game to create the Google Image Labeler, which is used to improve the accuracy of Google Image Search.

Luis von Ahn’s CAPTCHAs work but in reverse identifying humans than computers

Luis’ games drew more attention from the mainstream media. Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science awarded him the Best Doctoral Dissertation Award.

Luis also presented a tech lecture on Human Computation or CAPTCHA crowdsourcing at Google in July 2006, which nearly one million people saw.

Luis Von Ahn created reCAPTCHA, a new type of CAPTCHA that also aids in digitizing books, in 2007.

The visuals of words presented to the user in reCAPTCHA are taken directly from digitized ancient books; they are words that optical character recognition failed to recognize and sent to people all across the internet to be identified. 

Luis von Ahn sold reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009

Over 100,000 websites employ ReCAPTCHA, which processes over 40 million words daily. He sold reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009.

Due to coverage in the New York Times and USA Today, as well as on the Discovery Channel, NOVA scienceNOW, and other mainstream venues. Understanding how CAPTCHAs work gave Von Ahn his first extensive public recognition.

Duolingo

Luis Von Ahn partnered with Severin Hacker to develop Duolingo

Luis told Medium that growing up in Guatemala, there were scarce opportunities for education for young people that he saw. According to statistics, children who grow up learning to read and write in Guatemala have a 30 percent chance of doing so.

Luis von Ahn realized this is a more significant issue that affects many developing countries, as people cannot afford to pay for education. Because of limited educational opportunities in his home country, he made something of his life despite his humble beginnings and inspired others to achieve the same.

Then he came to the United States to study math because he couldn't learn it in Guatemala. Since Luis von Ahn got the privilege of reasonable access to education, von Ahn is fluent enough to speak multiple languages and bridged his opportunities.

Around this same time, Luis is testing the waters of entrepreneurship. Luis wanted to share this opportunity; he collaborated with Severin Hacker and started developing Duolingo, an AI language learning app, in 2009. But who is Severin Hacker and why was he instrumental to Duolingo? 

Severin Hacker

Severin Hacker is Luis von Ahn’s Ph.D. student at the time of invention. Duolingo emerged as a by-product of Hacker's doctoral studies or a happy mistake.

Initially, Severin Hacker and his former graduate adviser, Luis von Ahn, sought to create an app program that could translate websites so non-English speakers could access them.

They believed that leveraging the talents and expertise of bilingual speakers was more successful than using automated translation technologies.

Hacker earned his bachelor's degree in computer science from ETH Zurich in 2006 then his Ph.D. in Computer Science was earned at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied large-scale human computation. He also received the TR35 award from the MIT Technology Review in 2014.

In 2011, Severin Hacker co-founded Duolingo with Von Ahn, a conversational language learning platform. Severin is Duolingo's current Chief Technology Officer.

Duolingo's objective for Hacker was to make the language learning app 100% free so that even the most disadvantaged individual with an internet connection could use it.

They established a corporation with the same name, Von Ahn as CEO and Hacker as CTO. Duolingo began a secret beta test in November 2011, and the app was introduced to the public in June 2012. What were Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker’s purposes for the Duolingo app?

What is Duolingo?

Von Ahn founded his company, Duolingo, to make learning languages accessible to everyone, regardless of their economic situation. 

Luis intended to broaden the employment prospects of poorer people by allowing them to learn a language. Getting access to courses online will enable people to learn in ways beyond what is offered in their own country.

Duolingo’s mission is to bring free language education and widen educational opportunities globally.

It was the goal of Duolingo to make learning languages accessible to everyone, so it has kept the courses free; however, Luis von Ahn’s Duolingo still made money.

Part of his money has come from advertising revenue and part from selling add-ons to the courses. He has also charged minimal fees for the language tests.

Duolingo was valued at $1.5 billion in May 2020.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Luis von Ahn told NPR that Duolingo experienced an increase in users. In Tim Ferriss' book Tools of Titans, Von Ahn has a chapter where he gives advice.

Luis von Ahn's continued success comes not just from his knack for building businesses but from his ability to create cultures people want to be part of. 

FAQs about Duolingo

  • Is Duolingo effective?

Practice makes perfect! Duolingo can help you become fluent. Want to learn Chinese? How about French? You can even learn Thai on Duolingo, but you won't become fluent until you actively practice the language with a native speaker or your comprehension abilities by listening to native conversations. 

How effective is Duolingo? Duolingo's efficacy was tested regarding language progress per hour of study. Overall, linguistic abilities improved by 91.4 points on average, and the gain was statistically significant.

  • Does Duolingo actually work?

Duolingo’s lessons start with engaging exercises like Duolingo flashcards that get you talking, reading, writing, and listening straight away. As you go through each lesson, you'll complete more complex assignments and accomplish more speaking and writing in the language.

Duolingo Audio lessons have just been released and are currently available in French and Spanish for iOS since it is a new feature.

At the beginner's level, Duolingo is a helpful practice tool. It won't teach you the complete language - no one resource could. It does not teach you grammar, but if used in combination with a grammar book, it provides excellent consolidation. The point is that whatever you use to learn a language, even textbooks, is a tool.

  • Is Duolingo Free?

Duolingo began as a free app with the commitment of remaining free permanently. The company has fulfilled its promise by becoming ad-supported and offering a premium membership dubbed Duolingo Plus. Duolingo does not require a Plus subscription. Simply enter your email address and password to get started with the app. You may study as many languages as you wish with a free account.

What can you get from Duolingo Plus?

Duolingo Plus removes advertisements and lets you use the mobile app indefinitely. In contrast, free users must stop using it if they answer too many questions incorrectly in a specified amount of time. Plus, members get limitless unique Legendary Levels (opens in a new window), Mastery Quizzes, and Test Outs, as well as the ability to perfect their mistakes as Duolingo keeps note of them.

  • Can you use Duolingo offline?

Users can complete certain classes and use the Duolingo offline, but your activities will not be counted toward your daily objectives unless you log in before midnight.

  • What languages does Duolingo have?

Duolingo offers 38 languages including two fictional languages from films and series such as Game of Thrones and Star Trek.

As of March 2022, English speakers can learn the following languages offered by Duolingo:

Duolingo offers 38 languages including two fictional languages from films
  • Can you learn Latin on Duolingo?

Although a dead language, you can still study and become fluent in Latin. As of 2022, There are over 1.41 million learning Latin.

  • How many times can I take Duolingo Test?

When starting out and depending on your knowledge of a specific language, you may be required to take a placement exam. You might be able to skip some of the more basic classes, such as learning basic terms and verb conjugations, if you take the placement test.

If you like, you may always start over. As previously said, you may learn as many languages as you wish at the same time and switch between them at any moment.

  • How to get more XP in Duolingo?

Each lesson awards 10 XP, however, you may pick how many lessons you want every day. Casual means one lesson each day, Regular means two, Serious means three, and Insane means five.

Von Ahn’s Other Ventures

Luis von Ahn’s modest and empathetic nature pushed him to seek more opportunities to widen help as far as possible.

Luis then joined the Partnership for Central America's executive committee in May 2021.

A group that brings together a variety of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions to support a vision of hope for Central America:

  • advance economic opportunity
  • address urgent climate
  • education
  • health challenges,
  • promote long-term investments
  • workforce capability building

Von Ahn says he grew up in Guatemala City during a time of "particularly unsafe conditions," but was lucky to go to a good school and come to the US for higher education.

The new program aims to support vulnerable populations such as women and young people, as well as to fund internet access, job training programs as well as efforts to combat food shortages.

The Partnership for Central America was launched in response to US Vice President Kamala Harris' call to action to deepen investment in the Northern Triangle to combat irregular migration from Central America to the US (a term coined to refer to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras).

Other notable who made efforts with the US government are Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox and Demet Mutlu, CEO and Founder of Trendyol in Turkey.

Recognitions of Luis Von Ahn

Von Ahn’s Awards and Honors

Luis Von Ahn’s work on CAPTCHAs and human computation have brought him international acclaim and multiple awards. 

In 2006, he received a MacArthur Fellowship; this award is unofficially known as the Genius Grant. A prize that awards a few pioneering creatives by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation annually. In 2007, Luis von Ahn received the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship.

In 2009, Luis received two awards and recognized his inventions as technological breakthroughs, David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship, a Sloan Fellowship, and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2012. 

With a technology that can aid digital privacy that helps millions of people and businesses, and countries that use encryption as national security, it is no wonder that his work goes unnoticed. 

Luis von Ahn has also been named one of the 50 Best Brains in Science by Discover and was named to other recognition lists, including:

Luis Von Ahn named in MIT Innovators Under 35

The Inter-American Dialogue presented Luis von Ahn with the Distinguished Leadership Award for Innovation and Social Impact in 2017.

He also received the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2018 for his commitment to bettering the world via technology.

Another talented Tech Founder, Rana el Kaliouby, was recognized by the Smithsonian Magazine for her contributions to technology with the same calibre of impact as Luis von Ahn.

Language Learning Apps Infographics

Teaching

Von Ahn has earned many teaching honors at Carnegie Mellon University for using various innovative teaching strategies.

He started teaching a new course called Science of the Web at Carnegie Mellon in the fall of 2008. The course combines graph theory with social science to address network, game theory, and auction theory.

Personal Life of Luis Von Ahn

As a soft-spoken and modest man, Luis von Ahn kept a low profile in his life.

In 2011,  Luis von Ahn tied the knot and married Laura Dabbish. The couple had two daughters.

Luis Von Ahn is currently an assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science. 

He is interested in techniques that use the computational abilities of humans, such as games in which people resolve large-scale problems that computers still can't handle and solve.

Key Takeaway: Luis Von Ahn

Looking at Luis von Ahn’s work, he is reflected in many things.

Despite being in a big tech company such as Google, Luis went out of his way to create something that he could call his own.

He created things that have an impact on the world: Data-Privacy.

In short, he believed in himself that his vision could be accomplished. Being talented in computer technology, he was forging a path to carve out his mission–education.

Luis Von Ahn’s key takeaway that his vision could be accomplished

As a bilingual speaker, he owed a lot to his mother for helping him widen out and break barriers. One unseen is living in the corners of your monolingual ability.

Experiencing the opportunities as a bilingual, he wanted to share the gift of connecting with others, not just skin deep but more profound to people's hearts. The only way to do that is through communication. Like Rachel Romer Carlson, both of these dynamic entrepreneurs knows that education is the bridge to opportunities.

As tech entrepreneurs, we can imitate Luis von Ahn in believing in ourselves while being kind and mindful of the world. Von Ahn didn’t contribute tech to the world simply because he wanted to earn but with a purpose of philanthropy.

Luis von Ahn’s accomplishments meant a lot to him, but he believed he still had more to learn and room to grow.

Though he makes a lot of money from his entrepreneurial ventures and is at the top of his game, The CAPTCHA creator and Duolingo founder claim he isn't brilliant. The reason for his success, Von Ahn says, is hard work and determination rather than brains.

Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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