Louis von ahn, An entrepreneur who has devoted his career to free education, has probably offended you more than once. In fact, you have probably been offended by his work dozens and perhaps hundreds of times over the years.
A decade ago he founded the eccentric and language-learning app Duolingo, one of the world’s most popular education apps with over 500 million downloads and 40 million active users, building the technology that CAPTCHA will be made for those human beings – annoying annoying bots but short exams that occur when registering or logging into popular Internet services like email.
This may sound like a radical pivot, but in fact, the lesson of making safety testing extensively useful to consumers will one day offer core DNA to build one of the world’s most successful EdTech companies. Immigrant entrepreneurs will soon learn for themselves that crowdsourcing, language and the desire to adapt and ignore critics can change the face of an industry forever.
Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala City, where he first saw the wretched state of public schools in poor countries. Her mother spent the majority of her income sending her to a “fancy private school” as she puts it, and she estimates that she spent $ 1 million on her education during her lifetime. The price tag weighed on him, and he knew that he wanted to broaden the reach of education in the future.
After attending Duke as an undergraduate, von Ahn received a first-year Ph.D. in computer science. Students at the top-ranked Carnegie Mellon University when talking about Yahoo’s 10 biggest headaches by Yahoo’s chief scientist. An issue arose: Hackers were creating bots that register thousands of email addresses to send spam.
Inspired and full of immigrant patience, a team led by von Ahn and his then mentor Manuel Blum created a nifty little test that could distinguish between bots and humans. Whenever a user tries to log in, a test called captcha is presented in squiggly, ink-blotted words. The deceptively simple test worked, so Von Ahn, then a 20-student, gave it to Yahoo for free, not realizing the value of a day.
The fire was lit. With Yahoo as a distribution channel, captcha tests exploded in popularity, becoming an almost universally identifiable security checkpoint feature. At its peak, people spent 500,000 hours per day typing up to 200 million CAPTCHAs worldwide. About 10% of the world’s population recognized at least one term, the Von Ahn estimates.
For all technology breakthroughs, however, there was a downside. “During those 10 seconds when you’re typing a captcha, your brain is doing something a computer can’t do, which is amazing,” Von Ahn said. But the tests were annoying and pointless, so he thought, “Can we get those 500,000 hours per day to do something for humanity?”
So in 2005 he launched reCAPTCHA. Captcha will have the same goal in these new tests, but with one twist: the signs will be scans of all books. Users will complete security tests, helping to digitize books for the Internet Archive.
This time, von Ahn knew that his nifty idea was worth something. In 2009, he sold reCAPTCHA to Google, a transaction conducted a year later after the Internet giant bought a license for another research project that focused on game labeling.
The takeover offer was not only a monetary award (the exact terms of the deal were not disclosed), but also a sudden arrogance in the industry a few years after acquiring a Ph.D. Nevertheless, instead of completing a stint at a tech company, he stayed local in Pittsburgh and became a professor of computer science at his Almaeter.
Entering the world of education as a professor seemed like a response to my original dream of expanding access to education. What Von Ahn did not know, however, was that his iconic work was simply a foreboding. Carnegie Mellon, the translation of the translation and even Google will play a part in their next project, even if in wildly different ways: incubation, failure and investment. For her, the success of two devices that used language as a barrier was the beginning of a long journey in finding out if, and how, language could be a bridge instead. It was an insight that would evolve into a $ 2.4 billion worth of startups with the goal of making language learning fun: Duolingo.
Duolingo’s first words
In 2011, edtech startups like Cortera and Codec Academy were popping up – companies that today are valued as multibillion-dollar businesses. The rise of iPads and tablets in classrooms allowed founders who believed that the future of education was on the Internet. The excitement was boiling, and the virtual instruction felt like a newborn, but ambitious, place of betting.