Did you know the brain behind the CAPTCHA and Duolingo belongs to the same person? His name is Luis von Ahn, he’s a 38-year-old Guatemalan living in the US and by the age of 29 he had sold two companies to Google. How did he do it? He’s one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing, a sourcing model in which individuals or organizations use contributions from Internet users to obtain needed services or ideas. Von Ahn shaped the odds in his favor because he built three companies based on the idea that you can use technology to turn the mindless activities people do every day into something productive and lucrative.
He got his first crowdsourcing-based business idea when he was 12, he thought he could create a gym where he would connect the exercise equipment to the power grid to get electricity from the work outs. That way he could not only offer free membership for the gym, but also sell that leftover electricity to the power company. “Turns out it’s a pretty common bad idea. The reason it doesn’t work is because humans are pretty crappy at generating electricity. The amount of electricity you could generate this way is worth nothing,” von Ahn explains.
It might not have been the best business idea but it definitely put him on the right path to success. If you have ever translated a series of blurry words and numbers to prove that you are human and not a robot on the Internet, then you have run into his work. The CAPTCHA, or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, was invented by von Ahn and his mentor Manuel Blum in 2000. It was originally invented to help keep spambots out of chatrooms but it turned out to be really effective to identify computers since they have a really difficult time reading distorted text. He got inspired by this idea and created the two companies he sold Google based on this technology.
One of them is called reCAPTCHA and it’s helping digitalise books all over the world. In this case, the user has to decode two distorted words instead of one, but it’s not just to prove their humanity. One of the words is an automated test generated by the system, and the second one comes from an old book or newspaper article that computers can’t identify. If the person gets the first word right, the system assumes the second one is right as well. The use of reCAPTCHA is so extended on the Internet that that they’re digitalizing around a 100 million words a day, which is the equivalent of 2,5 million books a year. Millions of books being digitalized one word at a time by people typing CAPTCHAs on the Internet, something they had to do anyway in order to buy things online or even log in on social media.
The other company was ESP Game (now called The Google Image Labeler) and it was created under the same basic idea of using Internet users to do something useful. ESP was a game that would randomly pair players, show them a series of images and ask them to “type whatever the other guy is typing” – the more accurate you got, the better score you got. So, for example, if a picture of a cat appeared, both users would type “cat”, “kitty”, “pet”, “animal”, etc. and, by doing so, they were helping label thousands of pictures on the Internet. The program launched in 2005 and within four months it lured 13.000 Internet users into producing 1.3 million labels for 300.000 images.
After working at Google for two years helping implement his technology and getting an undisclosed amount of money thanks to the sales (only reCAPTCHA reported him a sum somewhere between $10 and $100 million, according to von Ahn himself), he found himself having a life crisis at 30. “I was having sort of a quarterlife crisis, wondering what I am going to do with the rest of my life,” he says. He tried retiring but found out that kind of life wasn’t for him pretty quickly. “You know, I retired. I retired for, like, a day.”
Von Ahn was born and raised in Guatemala until he moved to the US in 1996 to attend university. After becoming a millionaire in his late 20s, he felt like he was in the right place to do something important, make a difference somehow. He was deeply inspired by his humble upbringing in a poor country where high quality education was limited to those with money, so he decided he wanted to transform the way education works. And since it was such a broad area, he chose to focus on language learning because people (like himself) often opt to learn English in order to get better opportunities. “To put it into perspective, there are 1.2 billion people across the world who are learning a foreign language, and about 800 million of them are learning English or order to get out of poverty,” von Ahn explains.
He co-founded Duolingo in 2011 with the mission of bringing free language education to the world. Today, it’s the most popular way to learn languages online with more than 68 languages courses, over 150 million users worldwide, $83.3 million in funding and several awards to the best app of the year for both the iOS and Android version. One fact they’re particularly proud of is that “there are more people learning languages on Duolingo in the US than there are people learning languages in the entire US public school system.”
"I think the reason it's been doing so well is it's very enjoyable – there are a lot of aspects that make it a bit like playing a game – but also effective," he explains. "There's an independent study that shows that if you use Duolingo for 34 hours you learn the same as you would in one university semester of language learning."
Von Ahn has sworn to keep Duolingo entirely free forever. He first launched the project thanks to a MacArthur Fellowship he got and quickly got millions in funding thanks to the impressive success. He’s also using his good old crowdsourcing trick to monetize the product: one of the options users have to practice the language is the “immersion mode”, where students can put their knowledge in practice by translating real documents on the Internet. Major media companies such as CNN or Buzzfeed use Duolingo for their translation services, as the texts are fairly accurate because many people work on each document and other users vote for the best version that will be send back to the media.
Lately, Duolingo has been playing an important role in the lives of the refugees who have arrived to Europe from places like Syria and Iraq, making the difference von Ahn always dreamed of. “So the most commonly learned language in Sweden is Swedish. It is actually Swedish from Arabic,” he mentions. “It’s refugees.” He explains how there has been a boom in the Arabic to other languages programs in Europe. “Fascinating, isn’t it? I never would have expected it.”
And this is just the beginning, he’s really determined to change the education process and help those who need it most. His next project is similar a platform that will teach illiterate people to read and write, also for free. As you can see, von Ahn’s success lays on targeting what people love doing the most on the Internet and trying to get them to ‘work for you’ for a better world. "It's just taking something that people do anyways," von Ahn says, "and trying to extract value out of it." Now that’s shaping the odds in your favor!