Luis von Ahn at Takram Academy


It’s rare to meet someone who has or is in the process of changing the way we live our lives. At Takram, a cutting-edge design engineering firm in Aoyama, which runs an “Academy” lecture program inviting speakers from various sectors of the creative industry, the eightframe team had the opportunity to meet Luis von Ahn, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon and IT entrepreneur.

He started his short lecture by explaining that he is the inventor of the annoying CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA programs which many websites use to deter spam bots. He then redeemed himself by explaining that the main point of this was to help digitize books.

“Humans can read the letters and numbers but computers can’t,” he said. “Millions of people type CAPTCHA and it helps digitize books. Many other projects are trying to digitize books like Google. They scan books like a digital photograph. But computers need to decipher it but older books using older words can’t be understood by computers but humans can do it.

We take words that computers can’t read and use them for CAPTCHA. Using what we type to digitize books comes to around 200,000,000 books a year. In total 1,100,000,000 is the amount of people who’ve helped us to digitize books.”

These are hefty figures for any young entrepreneur but von Ahn decided to sell the program to Google and moved on to establish Duolingo three years ago which, as I write, is the most popular way to learn a language online in the world with 13,000,000 active users. Very much in the same vein as CAPTCHA and epitomizing James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds theory from his seminal 2005 book, Duolingo acts as a two way system with users learning a new language and Duolingo asking them if they would be interested in doing online translation work which they then sell to high-profile clients such as CNN and Buzzfeed.

Von Ahn, who was also a recipient of the famous MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant” in 2006, explained that the Duolingo users check each other’s work constantly and that thirty users are as good as or better than one professional translator.

He says that “there are presently 1,200,000,000 learning a new language. 800,000,000 of them are learning English due to employment issues and/or belong to a low socioeconomic group. But online courses cost a lot. I wanted to set up language learning for free but how do we finance it?”

He explains that “basically CNN writes news in English and students translate it back into their own language and CNN pay for it. The web app was number one for iPhone and Android. It was also Apple’s app of the year last year.”

One of the other hurdles for Duolingo was to make it more entertaining and to have a continual system of improvement. The Guatemalan entrepreneur says that “We decided to split language into skill sets such as food, animals, plurals etc... You unlock skills as you master one. We also send reminders to users to come back. And we analyze data information to improve the system. Every week Duolingo is getting better at what it does. We believe that 34 hours learned with Duolingo is the equivalent of one semester at university.”

Luis von Ahn appeared at Takram Academy. For more information about future lectures and events check Takram's Facebook Page.

Written by
Paul McInnes
Nathan Hosken