People of ACM - Luis von Ahn

May 15, 2014

Luis von Ahn is the A. Nico Habermann Associate Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He is working to develop a new area of computer science that he calls Human Computation, which aims to build systems that combine the intelligence of humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone. An example of his work is reCAPTCHA, in which over one billion people—15% of humanity—have helped digitize books and newspapers. Among his many honors are a MacArthur Fellowship, a Packard Fellowship, a Sloan Research Fellowship, a Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship, the  2011 ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, and CMU's Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence and Alan J. Perlis Teaching Award. He has been named one of the "50 Best Brains in Science" by  Discover magazine, one of the 50 most influential people in technology by, and one of the "Brilliant 10 Scientists" by  Popular Science.

How has your recognition as a MacArthur Fellow and ACM Grace Hopper Award recipient influenced your research interests or altered your career path?

I was very fortunate to have received these recognitions early in my career because they completely shaped its path. They allowed and encouraged me to work on riskier projects such as reCAPTCHA and Duolingo.

Now that 25 million users have accessed your Duolingo free-learning and crowdsourced text translation platform as of January 2014, what measures of success have you established to reach your goal of translating all or most of the Web into every major language?

Duolingo is now the most popular way to learn languages online. (There are more people learning a language with Duolingo than in the entire US public school system!) Our goal is to reach 100 million active users, and for Duolingo to become the de facto way to learn languages in the world.

As a dreamer of innovative business models that are changing how we work, live, and learn, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

Computers have transformed our lives—we're now able to keep in daily contact with friends and family through social networks, to find our way in a new city with GPS, to access almost any piece of information that has ever existed within seconds, and even to organize revolutions against oppressive dictatorships through the Internet. But this transformation is nowhere near done. In the next 30 years we'll see the remaining aspects of our lives be transformed, with self-driving cars, visits to the doctor over the Internet, and being able to receive an entire education online, virtually for free. My advice is to be part of this revolution—work on the things that matter to move our society forward.