Bot Prevention, Crowdsourcing, Language Learning

Louis von Ahn was born in 1978 in Guatemala. Both of his parents were doctors, and he had privileges that others in his country did not have. His privileged background has helped shape his career.

His experience in applying for college in the U.S. left him with a distaste for how exploitative the testing industry was. He attended Duke where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. He subsequently earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon.

If you have ever been annoyed by having to identify photographs with motorcycles in them to access a website you can thank him. He was the developer of tests that humans can easily do but computers struggle passing.

He also has done pioneering work in using computer technology for crowdsourcing. In addition to that he has developed technology that supports digitizing of books. His technology helps identify words that optical character recognition cannot identify using a crowdsourcing approach.

Louis sold his second company to Google and was looking for another venture. His experience of how expensive it was to learn English growing up led to the development of Duolingo. He and his graduate student, Severin Hacker, wanted to provide an education service that would make learning fun and available around the world.

Luis had been awarded a MacArthur fellowship and received funding from NSF to underwrite the development of Duolingo. The instruction component of Duolingo is free to users with revenue generated from certifications, advertising, and subscriptions. It has become the most used language-learning app worldwide. It provides instruction in over 40 languages.

In spite of his business success, Luis remains a professor at Carnegie Mellon. His teaching builds on strategies used in Duolingo to engage students’ attention. As a result, he has won a number of teaching awards.

In the tradition of learn, earn, return, that many technology entrepreneurs have adopted, Luis has created a foundation to support Guatemalan women and girls’ equality, environmental causes, democracy, and youth development.

With the rising concern for the intrusion of technology into our lives, Luis von Ahn is an example of a technology entrepreneur whose ideas are using technology to better society.

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“Technology should improve your life… Not become your life.” – Billy Cox

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