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How a robot battle test became edtech’s most iconic brand, Duolingo – TechCrunch

Luis von Ahn, an entrepreneur who has dedicated his career to scaling free education, has probably annoyed you more than once. In fact, you’ve probably been bored by his work dozens and perhaps hundreds of times over the years.

A decade before he co-founded the whimsical language-learning app Duolingo, one of the world’s most popular educational apps with over 500 million downloads and 40 million active users, he was developing the technology that would become CAPTCHA, these human applications. annoying little tests but preventing bots that appear when registering or logging into popular internet services like email.

It may sound like a radical backbone, but in fact, the lessons of how to create useful large-scale safety tests for consumers would one day offer the basic DNA to build one of the most successful electronics tech companies. in the world. The immigrant entrepreneur would soon learn for himself that crowdsourcing, language, and the willingness to adapt and ignore criticism could change the face of an industry forever.

CAPTCHA on a market

Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala City, where he saw first-hand the miserable state of public schools in poor countries. Her mother spent most of her income sending her to a “luxury private school,” as he puts it, and he estimates that she spent over a million dollars on her studies during her lifetime. . The price weighed on him and he knew he wanted to expand access to education in the future.

After studying at Duke as an undergraduate, von Ahn was an enterprising first-year computer science PhD student. top-ranked Carnegie Mellon University student when he attended a Yahoo Chief Scientist’s lecture on 10 of Yahoo’s Biggest Headaches. One problem stands out: Hackers create bots that register thousands of email addresses to send spam.

Inspired and full of immigrant courage, von Ahn and a team led by his then-advisor Manuel Blum created a nifty little test that could distinguish between robots and humans. The test, called CAPTCHA, exhibited wavy, ink-speckled words whenever a user tried to log in. Back then, computer vision couldn’t read obscured text, but humans could easily – creating a useful signal. The deceptively simple test worked, so von Ahn, then a student in his twenties, gave it to Yahoo for free, not understanding the value it would one day have.

Luis von Ahn, inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, and co-founder of Duolingo. Image credits: Duolingo

A fire has been lit. With Yahoo as the distribution channel, CAPTCHA tests have exploded in popularity, becoming an almost universally recognizable security checkpoint feature. At their peak, people were spending 500,000 hours a day typing up to 200 million CAPTCHAs around the world. About 10% of the world’s population recognized at least one word, von Ahn estimates.

For all of the technology’s success, however, there was a downside. “During those 10 seconds while you’re typing a CAPTCHA, your brain is doing something that computers can’t, which is amazing,” said von Ahn. But the tests were boring and unnecessary, so he asked himself, “Could we make these 500,000 hours a day do something useful for humanity?”

So, in 2005, he launched reCAPTCHA. These new tests would have the same purpose as CAPTCHA, but with a twist: the prompts would all be book scans. Users would complete the security test while helping to scan books for Internet archives.

How a robot battle test became edtech’s most iconic brand, Duolingo – TechCrunch

The initial design of reCAPTCHA. Image credits: Duolingo

This time, von Ahn knew his brilliant idea was worth something. In 2009, he sold reCAPTCHA to Google, a transaction made just a year after the internet giant purchased a license for one of its other research projects, a game focused on tagging images.

How a robot battle test became edtech’s most iconic brand, Duolingo – TechCrunch

Luis von Ahn presents reCAPTCHA and CAPTCHA, two of his iconic inventions. Image credits: Duolingo

The acquisition not only offered a monetary reward (exact terms of the deal were not disclosed), but also suddenly gained von Ahn serious influence in the industry just a few years after earning his doctorate. Yet instead of taking a job with the tech company, he stayed local in Pittsburgh and became a computer professor at his alma mater.

Entering the world of education as a teacher was a response to her initial dream of expanding access to education. What von Ahn didn’t know, however, was that his iconic work was simply foreshadowing. Carnegie Mellon, participatory translation and even Google would also play a role in his next project, albeit in very different ways: incubation, failure and investment. For him, the success of two tools that used language as a barrier was the start of a long journey to discover if, and how, language could instead be a bridge. It was an idea that would become a start-up valued at $ 2.4 billion with the aim of making language learning fun: Duolingo.

The first words of Duolingo

In 2011, edtech startups like Coursera and Codecademy popped up – companies that are now valued as multi-billion dollar companies. The rise of iPads and tablets in classrooms gave permission to the founders who believed the future of education was on the internet. Enthusiasm was bubbling up and virtual education seemed like a nascent, yet ambitious place to bet on.

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