The story of Luis Von Ahn, the creator of Captcha and Duolingo

The story of Luis Von Ahn, the creator of Captcha and Duolingo

At the age of 8, while living in Guatemala, he taught himself programming. At 17 he received a scholarship to study in the United States. At 29 years old he became a millionaire after selling two Startups to Google. He has revolutionized the way processes are authenticated on the Internet, the way books are digitized, and developed a service that allows millions of people to learn languages ​​completely free while translating the entire web. How has he achieved it?

Luis Von Ahn, the entrepreneur behind the best platform for learning languages

The protagonist of this story is Luis Vonh An, a Guatemalan entrepreneur who was born in Guatemala City on August 19, 1978. From a very young age, Luis aroused a great passion for technology and video games. Like all kids at that time, he dreamed of a Nintendo for Christmas; So his mother decided to give him a Commodore 64 computer when he turned 8 years old. On said computer, he taught himself to program and at the age of 13, he was already making his programs. In his childhood he had the opportunity to attend a private bilingual school, a fact that Luis describes as a great privilege and that would lay the foundations for his ideas in the future.

In addition to his passion for technology, Luis was a prodigy in mathematics and physics, so after finishing high school, he received a full scholarship to study at Duke University in northern California in the United States. There he studied mathematics and graduated in 2000. He later studied for a doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Upon completing his studies in 2005 he became a professor at said university.

Revolutionizing the way to authenticate on the Internet

While working as a professor, he was in charge of directing the university’s technological research laboratory. There, together with several of his students, he identified a problem. More and more sites on the Internet needed an authentication system that would allow them to know if they were receiving information from a real person and not from a program. For example, a website that sells tickets to a concert needs to know if the person buying a ticket is a real person, otherwise any reseller can create a program that buys all the tickets automatically.

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After several months of hard work, Luis created “Captcha” in 2006, a simple but effective solution. It was a small add-on that forced people to write a random word made up of distorted letters, to identify themselves as real humans every time they were going to fill out a form or make a purchase somewhere. This useful system worked correctly because computers could not yet easily digitize texts.

The small Startup was a complete success and received several recognitions and awards over the years. Thousands of sites on the Internet, such as PayPal, began to use this technology. The impact was such that around 200 million times a day someone typed a captcha on the Internet.

At first, this figure made Luis feel proud, but, after reflecting, he discovered that people took approximately 10 seconds to complete a captcha. When doing the math, he realized that humanity was losing approximately 500,000 hours a day, and that time could be used in some way.

After analyzing the situation for several months, in 2007 he finally found a way to take advantage of the impact of his creation. Luis devised a system based on Captcha that, in addition to providing security to websites, at the same time allowed books to be digitized. It achieved this by asking the user to type two words instead of one. The first word would be a word known to the system that served to authenticate that the user was a human, and the second was a capture of a word that belonged to some old book that the system was trying to digitize but had not been able to recognize. In this way, he could use the time of millions of people to create a large virtual library. He named this new idea “ReCaptcha”, and it soon began to be used by more than 100 thousand sites on the Internet.

The success and innovation of the idea attracted the attention of Google, which decided to acquire both technologies in 2009 for an approximate value of $20 million. Currently, Google uses this technology to create the largest digital library of ancient books in the world.

The sale of the companies to Google represented a juicy figure for Luis, who at the age of 31 became a millionaire. But this did not stop his creativity and ingenuity.

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Revolutionizing the way of learning languages

“I wanted to do something to help. I had already sold two companies to Google, I didn’t need more money, and I realized that in Guatemala and throughout Latin America many people want to learn English, but usually those who need it most do not have the resources.” -Luis said in an interview.

With this idea in mind, he began working on a project that would allow people to learn any language completely for free; since, for example, at that time the digital alternatives to learn English were quite expensive. Some of them, like Open English, very popular in Latin America, had a cost of up to 1,000 dollars.

However, to provide quality education, it needed to find profitability in another way. There Luis began to reflect on how in the Middle Ages, if someone wanted to learn a trade (like baking, for example), they looked for someone who already knew the trade to become their teacher. In this way, the master taught the student everything related to work, and, in return, the apprentice worked for the master.

This model benefited both parties and allowed free access to education, but it was replaced in the Industrial Revolution by the education model that exists to this day, since the same thing needed to be taught to hundreds of people, and it was more profitable and Scalable to hire one teacher for multiple students.

With this point of view and the user numbers previously achieved in his other projects, Luis devised a business model for his next company.

Thus, in 2011 “Duolingo” was born, a web platform and mobile application that allows its users to learn languages ​​for free while translating the Internet.

That year, the platform received an initial investment of $3 million from a group of investors. Said capital amounted to 18 million dollars in 2012.

The Duolingo app is quite simple and intuitive. It is perfectly designed to feel like a video game. Users can spend just a few minutes a day and significantly improve their mastery of a new language. And, most interestingly, as users learn a new language, they are asked to translate phrases taken from the Internet into their native language, the difficulty of which is by the student’s level. When the same phrase has been translated in the same way by more than 10 different students, the phrase is approved and becomes part of the official translation of the document. This system has been proven to obtain results of the same quality as translations performed by professionals.

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A large part of the translations obtained by students are sold to third parties. One of Duolingo‘s main clients is CNN, which pays the platform to translate its articles into different languages. In this way, and with the implementation of an advertising and donation model, Duolingo managed to raise 36 million dollars in 2018; a sufficient figure to maintain the platform and allow the number of available courses to be periodically increased.

Today Duolingo has more than 300 million users, has 94 courses available to learn 23 different languages, ​​and has the possibility of digitally certifying its users in the language they have learned.

In 2013, PC Magazine named Duolingo the best way to learn languages ​​using software.

The success of the platform is such that even Bill Gates himself publicly acknowledged that he used it to try to learn languages ​​other than his native English.

A visionary genius who is changing the world

Currently, Luis is 41 years old and is dedicated to his work as CEO at Duolingo. For his work, he has received several awards, such as the MacArthur Award, also known as “the genius award,” and he is part of “the 50 best brains in science” according to Discover Magazine. He has several features in mind that he hopes to launch in the future on the platform; and he hopes to soon revolutionize the education industry by implementing the same philosophy that has allowed him to create all his companies: the possibility that the Internet offers to take advantage of the efforts of millions of people.

Thus we conclude the inspiring story of Luis Von Ahn, a genius born in Latin America who, with his particular way of seeing the world and his revolutionary ideas, is changing how people learn through the Internet and at the same time contribute to the achievement of great purposes.

In Luis’s own words:

“The reason that motivates my research is that, if we could put a man on the moon with 100,000 people, what could we do with 100 million people and the help of the Internet?”

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BUZZBONGO  we are here to serve society through a virtual environment that enables people who wish to develop their personal and professional skills in fields related to finance ,administration, business and the economy to share and acquire knowledge.