Luis von Ahn


Luis von Ahn (Spanish: [ˈlwis fon ˈan]; born 19 August 1978) is a Guatemalan entrepreneur, software developer, and consulting professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[2][3][4][5][6] He is known as one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing. He is the founder of the company reCAPTCHA, which was sold to Google in 2009,[7] and the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo.[8]

Luis von Ahn
Von Ahn at Wikimania 2015
Born (1978-08-19) 19 August 1978 (age 45)
Guatemala City, Guatemala
EducationDuke University (BS)
Carnegie Mellon University (PhD)
Known forCAPTCHA
SpouseIngrid von Ahn
Scientific career
FieldsHuman-based computation games
InstitutionsCarnegie Mellon University
ThesisHuman Computation (2005)
Doctoral advisorManuel Blum Edit this at Wikidata

Early life and education


Luis von Ahn was born and raised in Guatemala City. He is of Guatemalan German-Jewish descent through his father. His mother was one of the first women in Guatemala to complete medical school, gave birth von Ahn at age 42, and raised him as a single mother.[9] He attended the American School of Guatemala, a private English-language school in Guatemala City, an experience he cites as a great privilege.[10][11] When von Ahn was eight years old, his mother bought him a Commodore 64 computer, beginning his fascination with technology and computer science.[12] When he applied to colleges in the United States, von Ahn had to spend more than $1,200 to fly to neighboring El Salvador to take the TOEFL. This experience left him with a negative impression of an "extractive" testing industry, ripe for disruption.[9]

At age 18, von Ahn began studying at Duke University, where he received a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Mathematics, summa cum laude, in 2000.[13] He later earned his PhD in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005.[14][15]

In 2006, Von Ahn became a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science.[16]

Career and research


Von Ahn's early research[17] was in the field of cryptography. With Nicholas J. Hopper and John Langford, he was the first to provide rigorous definitions of steganography and to prove that private-key steganography is possible.

In 2000, he did early pioneering work with Manuel Blum on CAPTCHAs,[18] computer-generated tests that humans are routinely able to pass but that computers have not yet mastered.[19] These devices are used by web sites to prevent automated programs, or bots, from perpetrating large-scale abuse, such as automatically registering for large numbers of accounts or purchasing huge numbers of tickets for resale by scalpers. CAPTCHAs brought von Ahn his first widespread fame among the general public due to their coverage in the New York Times and USA Today and on the Discovery Channel, NOVA scienceNOW, and other mainstream outlets.

Von Ahn's PhD thesis, completed in 2005, was the first publication to use the term "human computation" that he had coined, referring to methods that combine human brainpower with computers to solve problems that neither could solve alone. Von Ahn's PhD thesis is also the first work on Games With A Purpose, or GWAPs, which are games played by humans that produce useful computation as a side effect. The most famous example is the ESP Game,[20] an online game[21] in which two randomly paired people are simultaneously shown the same picture, with no way to communicate. Each then lists a number of words or phrases that describe the picture within a time limit, and are rewarded with points for a match. This match turns out to be an accurate description of the picture, and can be successfully used in a database for more accurate image search technology. The ESP Game was licensed by Google in the form of the Google Image Labeler, and is used to improve the accuracy of the Google Image Search. Von Ahn's games brought him further coverage in the mainstream media. His thesis won the Best Doctoral Dissertation Award from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science. In July 2006, von Ahn gave a tech talk at Google on "Human Computation" (i.e., crowdsourcing) which was watched by over one million viewers.[22]

In 2007, von Ahn invented reCAPTCHA,[23] a new form of CAPTCHA that also helps digitize books. In reCAPTCHA, the images of words displayed to the user come directly from old books that are being digitized; they are words that optical character recognition could not identify and are sent to people throughout the web to be identified. ReCAPTCHA is currently in use by over 100,000 web sites and is transcribing over 40 million words per day.[24]

Duolingo logo

In 2009, von Ahn and his graduate student Severin Hacker began to develop Duolingo, a language education platform. They founded a company of the same name, with von Ahn as chief executive officer and Hacker as chief technology officer. In November 2011, a private beta test of Duolingo was launched and the app was released to the public in June 2012.[25][26] As of May 2020, Duolingo was valued at $1.5 billion.[27] In a talk with NPR, von Ahn shared that Duolingo saw a spike in users during the COVID-19 pandemic.[27] von Ahn has a chapter giving advice in Tim Ferriss' book Tools of Titans.

In May 2021 von Ahn joined the executive committee of Partnership for Central America, an entity bringing together a variety of businesses, academic organizations and nonprofit organizations "to advance economic opportunity, address urgent climate, education and health challenges, and promote long-term investments and workforce capability building to support a vision of hope for Central America".[28] The Partnership for Central America was presented in the context of the United States' Vice President Kamala Harris's "call to action" to address irregular migration from Central America to the United States by "deepening investment in the Northern Triangle" (a term coined to refer to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras).[29][30]

Awards and honors


His research on CAPTCHAs and human computation has earned him international recognition and numerous honors. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006,[31][32] the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship in 2009, a Sloan Fellowship in 2009, and a Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship in 2007, and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2012.[33] He has also been named one of the 50 Best Brains in Science by Discover, and has made it to many recognition lists that include Popular Science's Brilliant 10,'s 50 Most Influential People in Technology, MIT Technology Review's TR35: Young Innovators Under 35, and Fast Company's 100 Most Innovative People in Business.

Siglo Veintiuno, one of the biggest newspapers in Guatemala, chose him as the person of the year in 2009. In 2011, Foreign Policy Magazine in Spanish named him the most influential intellectual of Latin America and Spain.[34]

In 2011, he was awarded the A. Nico Habermann development chair in computer science,[35] which is awarded every three years to a junior faculty member of unusual promise in the School of Computer Science.

In 2017, he was awarded the Distinguished Leadership Award for Innovation and Social Impact by the Inter-American Dialogue.[36]

In 2018, von Ahn was awarded the Lemelson-MIT prize for his "dedication to improving the world through technology."[16]

In 2021, von Ahn was named by Carnegie Corporation of New York as an honoree of the Great Immigrants Award.[37]



Von Ahn has used a number of unusual techniques in his teaching, which have won him multiple teaching awards at Carnegie Mellon University.[38] In the fall of 2008, he began teaching a new course at Carnegie Mellon entitled "Science of the Web". A combination of graph theory and social science, the course covers topics from network and game theory to auction theory.[39]

In his 2023 Ted Talk, he emphasised on the importance of making learning as fun as playing video games or using social media apps, by using similar features such as streak, leaderboard, etc.[40]



In 2021, von Ahn established the ILVA Foundation. The focus of the Foundation is to support Guatemalans, especially women and girls, through financial support to local community leaders and nonprofit organizations.[41] According to the foundation website, in 2022 the Luis von Ahn Foundation will give US$3 million to various organizations that focus on "women's and girls equality, conservation of the environment, and democracy and youth participation."[42]


  1. ^ "Innovators Under 35: 2007". MIT Technology Review. Archived from the original on 4 January 2021. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Luis von Ahn at TED  
  4. ^ Luis von Ahn at DBLP Bibliography Server  
  5. ^ Luis von Ahn on X  
  6. ^ "Luis von Ahn". Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  7. ^ "Teaching computers to read: Google acquires reCAPTCHA". Google Official Blog. 16 September 2009. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  8. ^ Shaw, Dougal (2021). "Duolingo boss: 'Develop your social skills'". London: BBC. As a CEO one thing I wish I'd concentrated on earlier was my social skills
  9. ^ a b Gifford, Bill (2 December 2022). "Can Duolingo Actually Teach You Spanish?". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 2 December 2022.
  10. ^ Smale, Will (27 January 2020). "The man teaching 300 million people a new language". BBC News. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  11. ^ "Luis von Ahn". 2018. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  12. ^ Shulman, Polly (2 October 2007). "The Player – Luis von Ahn's secret for making computers smarter? Get thousands of people to take part in his cunning online games". Smithsonian Magazine.
  13. ^ "Duke Ugrad Alum Profile: Luis von Ahn". Duke University. Archived from the original on 1 February 2017. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  14. ^ Von Ahn, Luis (2005). Human Computation. (PhD thesis). Carnegie Mellon University. ProQuest 305006687.
  15. ^ CMU CV
  16. ^ a b Federoff, Stacey. "Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn wins $500K Lemelson prize from MIT". Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  17. ^ "Luis von Ahn". Google Scholar. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  18. ^ Von Ahn, Luis; Blum, Manuel; Hopper, Nicholas J.; Langford, John (May 2003). "CAPTCHA: Using Hard AI Problems for Security". Proceedings of the International Conference on the Theory and Applications of Cryptographic Techniques (EUROCRYPT 2003).
  19. ^ Von Ahn, L.; Blum, M.; Langford, J. (2004). "Telling humans and computers apart automatically". Communications of the ACM. 47 (2): 56–60. CiteSeerX doi:10.1145/966389.966390. S2CID 724926.
  20. ^ Von Ahn, L.; Dabbish, L. (2004). "Labeling images with a computer game". Proceedings of the 2004 conference on Human factors in computing systems - CHI '04. pp. 319–326. CiteSeerX doi:10.1145/985692.985733. ISBN 978-1581137026. S2CID 338469.
  21. ^ Von Ahn, L. (2006). "Games with a Purpose". Computer. 39 (6): 92–94. doi:10.1109/MC.2006.196.
  22. ^ Google Tech Talk on human computation by Luis von Ahn. (26 July 2006). Retrieved on 12 June 2015.
  23. ^ Robert J. Simmons (December 2010). "Luis von Ahn: ReCaptcha, games with a purpose". XRDS: Crossroads, the ACM Magazine for Students. 17 (2): 49. doi:10.1145/1869086.1869102. S2CID 26398679.
  24. ^ Jesse Ellison (13 November 2009). "reCAPTCHA (a.k.a. Those Infernal Squiggly Words) Almost Done Digitizing the New York Times Archive". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 15 November 2009. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  25. ^ Loeb, Steven (22 June 2018). "When Duolingo was young: the early years". VatorNews.
  26. ^ Munday, Pilar (3 January 2016). "Duolingo como parte del curriculum de las clases de lengua extranjera". RIED. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación a Distancia. 19 (1): 83–101. doi:10.5944/ried.19.1.14581. hdl:11162/114904. ISSN 1390-3306.
  27. ^ a b "reCAPTCHA and Duolingo: Luis von Ahn : How I Built This with Guy Raz". Retrieved 9 November 2020.
  28. ^ "Partnership For Central America". Partnership For Central America. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  29. ^ "FACT SHEET: Vice President Harris Launches a Call to Action to the Private Sector to Deepen Investment in the Northern Triangle". The White House. 27 May 2021. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  30. ^ "Duolingo joins VP Kamala Harris's Call to Action". Duolingo Blog. 27 May 2021. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  31. ^ "MacArthur Fellows 2006". MacArthur Foundation. Archived from the original on 9 June 2011. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  32. ^ "Congratulations, Luis von Ahn". Google Official Blog. 19 September 2006. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  33. ^ Office of the Press Secretary (23 July 2012). "President Obama Honors Outstanding Early-Career Scientists". Retrieved 13 August 2015 – via National Archives.
  34. ^ "Los 10 nuevos rostros del pensiamento iberoamericano". FP (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 29 May 2011. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  35. ^ Habermmann Chair announcement. (14 March 2011). Retrieved on 13 May 2012.
  36. ^ "III Leadership for the Americas Awards Gala". The Dialogue. Retrieved 20 November 2019.
  37. ^ "Luis von Ahn". Carnegie Corporation of New York. Retrieved 12 June 2024.
  38. ^ CMU Faculty Awards. Retrieved on 13 May 2012.
  39. ^ "15-396 Science of the Web (Fall 2013)". Archived from the original on 4 November 2013. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  40. ^ Ahn, Luis von (25 October 2023), Luis von Ahn: How to make learning as addictive as social media (2018) posted in 2023), retrieved 27 October 2023
  41. ^ "Lois von Ahn Foundation". Retrieved 18 September 2022.
  42. ^ "Lois von Ahn Foundation". Retrieved 18 September 2022.
  • Google Tech Talk on human computation by Luis von Ahn
  • Profile: Luis von Ahn NOVA scienceNOW aired 2009-06-30
  • ILVA Foundation Website