Luis von Ahn
CEO and Co-founder of
Duolingo is a free language learning website and app. Its value proposition is that is provides everyone with a fun, effective, world-class language learning experience. To raise money for its ad-free product, Duolingo provides translation services to customers, such as CNN, by leveraging the translation power of the users of the app and website. Duolingo has 200,000 active monthly users. It’s learning algorithms tailor the language courses to the learner, increasing difficulty and complexity while reviewing previously learned content as the user may require. It has won a number awards and its success is in no small part due to its fascinating and innovative CEO and co-founder, Luis von Ahn.
Luis von Ahn’s claim to fame is a simple but elegant solution that has annoyed anyone who has tried to create an email or register for almost anything online.Those strange little pieces of texts that you are forced to type to confirm your humanity, called CAPTCHAs, were invented by von Ahn as part of his doctoral work. Feeling guilty for the seconds wasted by the millions of people forced enter them, von Ahn invented reCAPTCHA. This new program puts the human effort to work. When you enter the distorted words via reCAPTCHA, you are not just verifying that you are not a bot, you are digitizing literature from around the world. This type of harnessing of previously wasted effort has been the work that von Ahn has championed for years. He calls it Human Computation.
Luis von Ahn’s successes and projects speak to his skills as an innovator and a inventor. He recognizes ways to leverage effort in new and interesting ways. His ability to do this is bolstered by his professional background in computer science and cryptography. Just read his Wired article or watch his TED Talk and you will get the sense that he is driven by a passion for learning as much as any monetary profit. His team at Duolingo also augment his skills with further expertise.
Reflection: I first heard of Luis von Ahn on an episode of the Tim Ferris Show. Minutes later I was ‘playing’ Duolingo and learning French, German, and Spanish. The app itself is great; free, fun, and effective. But I was mostly compelled by the genius that von Ahn’s “Human Computing” or crowd-sourcing, represents. Basically, he created value out of wasted energy. Duolingo is a product where everyone benefits. The service is free without advertising but the business is still profitable. The success of this venture makes me think about all the ‘wasted energy’ of students in school who churn out reams of work for a grade at the end of the year. What if some innovative entrepreneur could harness all that potential? Imaginez les possibilités.
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