Marketers needs to learn Luis von Ahn’s language
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Luis von Ahn (@LuisvonAhn) is an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also a well-known tech entrepreneur and a disruptor; certainly, the tech and ‘new’ business press (what’s left of it) has put his name on so many lists that you could make listicles just of that (including “Brilliant Scientist”, “Young Innovator”, “Most Influential”, “Most Creative” — you get the drift). But let’s put substance before the bullshit. Von Ahn just feels like that kinda
guy human; at least he did when I saw him in action as a speaker at the 2017 Design Indaba held earlier this year.
In MarkLives’ coverage of the amazing talk given by Ayse Birsel, author of Design the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future, we noted how design thinking may sound simple but is actually pretty profound and complex. Von Ahn’s design thinking feels similar, in spite of the mind-boggling math that probably goes into coding his solutions.
CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA
He was involved in the development of CAPTCHA, the Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, which helps websites filter bots from humans on everything from comment sections to contact forms. Noting that tens of millions of people are typing text into the CAPTCHA system a team, which included Von Ahn, thought, ‘Well, why not use those millions of key strokes to add value beyond telling humans from spam bots?’ Enter reCAPTCHA: basically CAPTCHA but now tweaked to digitise and translate millions of books. Von Ahn says 200m CAPTCHAs display every day, which digitise 100m words a year. This, in turn. translates into 2m books being digitised very year.
His team has taken something that works and has added value; has imagined additional functionality and has made it do more, better. How would your business look and change if you applied the same principle? For example, Vodacom and MTN still compete with one another in ripping off consumers when WhatsApp has emerged as the real threat to their voice services. It makes data do more and better; there’s one way to trump that and it doesn’t feature full-page newspaper ads. Just putting that out there.
Today, Von Ahn’s focus has shifted his attention to Duolingo, a free language-learning platform.
Gamifying language learning
Around 1.2bn people across the world are busy learning another language, mostly English. Immigrants, travellers, young professionals — the range is broad and the exercise expensive and time-consuming. Since its launch, 150m of these learners have started using Duolingo to learn a new language using game-like experiences over the website or app.
According to Von Ahn, 34 hours of language training on the site equals a semester course at college. Take your pick from Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Swahili, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese or Welsh. A host of other language courses are under development, including Russian, Korean, Indonesian, Hindi and even Klingon. Zulu will be on its way soon, he says.
Duolingo uses its extensive database to learn how people learn, and to apply that knowledge to enhance its course material. As your new language skills progress, more units gets unblocked. It keeps people engaged and, through continued experimentation, the service keeps on improving the learning experience. More than 6bn exercises are completed every month.
The Duolingo English Test provides scientifically proven language certification to learners (at a cost of US$49). Duolingo for Schools, meanwhile, offers Duolingo adapted for groups of students and their educators (the app should be zero-rated by data providers, frankly).
The service is potentially transformative and certainly disrupts the language-education industry. It’s a great case study in how gamification can go beyond gimmicks to actually produce meaningful results. How might this be applied to corporate training,and who will do it first?
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com.