Luis von Ahn has worn a lot of labels over the years – genius, tech rock star, game changer. There’s another he could wear: social activist.
Von Ahn, the co-founder of the free language-learning app Duolingo, has been using the superpowers of his mind to right an injustice he experienced as a young man growing up in Guatemala, his native country.
“I saw the difference between those who had access to education – not just education, but a lot of things — and those who didn’t,” von Ahn told NBC Latino in an interview at Duolingo’s Pittsburgh headquarters.
“Guatemala is a very poor country. I went to a very fancy high school where everybody kind of had a lot of resources, but very nearby or nearby where I lived, there were people and friends I had who were not able to eat dinner that night,” he said.
Today about 15 percent of language classrooms in the U.S. use Duolingo and that number is growing. It is used in public schools in various countries, allowing schoolchildren and people to learn another language for free. It uses techniques from games and casinos to get learners to stick with it, von Ahn said.
“What makes me proudest about Duolingo, in particular, is Duolingo is used by this huge spectrum of people. On one side we have very, very wealthy users, for example, Bill Gates uses Duolingo to learn French. Tom Hanks uses Duolingo or Zoe Deschanel,” von Ahn said.
“On the other end of the spectrum … You have public school kids in developing countries using the same system that is used by very wealthy, famous people … This is one small example where more money can’t buy you a better system,” he said.
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Von Ahn has built and created an enterprise around the idea that computer science can harness a lot of energy from people’s activities. Married with technology to solve problems, it can accomplish important tasks and bring humankind forward.
Considered one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing, von Ahn is the brain behind those pesky random letters or words you have to retype to prove you are not a robot. The system is his former company, CAPTCHA, which he repurposed as reCAPTCHA. His inventions made it possible for the archives of the New York Times to be digitized each time a person retyped the words. He sold that and another he created to Google.
The companies stem, in part, from von Ahn’s need to get all the productivity he can out of a single task. When he was 12 or 13, he wanted to start a free gym so users’ exercise activity could be converted to energy. As an adult, he had to stop himself from driving while texting. He’s grateful for the driverless cars in parts of Pittsburgh that allow him to read his emails while commuting between places.
Von Ahn came to the U.S. from Guatemala in 1997 to study at Duke University, where he graduated summa cum laude. He went on to earn his doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where he now studies and lives. His company’s presence in Pittsburgh has been credited with helping revitalize the city.
But whenever he gives a talk, he starts by saying he is from Guatemala, showing it on a map and making it clear it is not Guantanamo.
Guatemala, von Ahn said, “defined me. I’m very defined by where I’m from and the older I get, the more I feel defined by the fact that I’m Latino or Guatemalan.”
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