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2023 NIHF Inductee Luis von Ahn: Unlocking Human Potential

Inductee Stories

“The reality is, most things you see in the world that are really excellent are the labor of love, and the result of years and years of work,” said Luis von Ahn. The co-creator of CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test for telling Computers and Humans Apart), inventor of reCAPTCHA and co-founder of language learning app Duolingo, von Ahn is considered one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing. His work proves that through inspiration, education and collaboration, there is no limit to what people can accomplish together. Read on to learn more about why von Ahn is among our 2023 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductees.

Finding an Innovative Path

Growing up in Guatemala City, Guatemala, von Ahn learned the value of exploration and education. In his earliest years, he found that a candy factory was an ideal place to follow his curiosity. Owned by his mother’s family, the factory offered countless hours of hands-on exploration as von Ahn discovered how the machinery worked.

Reflecting on how his childhood would later influence his career, in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, von Ahn said, “I grew up in a country where inventors normally don't grow up. I think that has actually shaped a lot of things. A lot of the ways in which I think, and a lot of the projects that I decide to work on.”

His mother encouraged his interests and gave him a Commodore 64 computer when he was just 8 years old. He believes this gift ultimately set him on the path to becoming an innovator.

Coming to the U.S. to attend college, von Ahn studied mathematics at Duke University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 2000. He then became a graduate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in computer science in 2003 and 2005.


Developing Impactful Technology

While at Carnegie Mellon, von Ahn was a member of the team that created CAPTCHA, which was designed to stop “bots,” or autonomous software programs that can generate fake email accounts or corrupt search results. By showing internet users scrambled text and prompting them to correctly type that text, CAPTCHA presented a kind of puzzle that could only be solved by humans, preventing bots from accessing a website or program. Yahoo! Became the first company to use CAPTCHA in 2001.

Following the success of CAPTCHA, von Ahn developed reCAPTCHA. This new approach took the time people spent typing characters and made meaningful use of it. While continuing to protect against bot attacks, reCAPTCHA also tapped into the collective power of internet users to transcribe archived books and newspapers. Displaying scanned, distorted text from these archived materials, reCAPTCHA led users to provide needed translations.

Each image of distorted text would be shown to several users, and if enough people typed the same word in response, it was determined to be accurately transcribed and incorporated into the digitized copy of its original source. The system worked so well, the New York Times partnered with von Ahn in 2007 to digitize more than a century’s worth of its archives.

By 2018, reCAPTCHA had made it possible for more than 1 billion people to help digitize texts. “I am very proud of having done something that was literally touched by billions of people and that helped digitize books,” said von Ahn.


Prioritizing Equity and Empowerment

After selling reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009, von Ahn focused his efforts on providing equitable access to learning. In 2011, he co-founded the world’s most popular language learning app. With around 70 million monthly active users, Duolingo offers a gamified approach to language acquisition, and it does so without charging its users.

“Certainly, Duolingo is very influenced by where I'm from,” von Ahn shared. “The reason I am so interested in being able to give the education away for free is because I grew up in such a poor country, where I saw that people who don't have access to education barely learn how to read and write, and therefore never make a lot of money. Whereas people who have money can get themselves a really good education and therefore continue making a lot of money. So, [Duolingo] was very influenced by that.”

Millions of people have benefited from accessing Duolingo’s free service, and as von Ahn points out, “Most of them, in fact, 93% of them, have not paid us a single cent. And yet we were able to make a very successful company out of that. I'm very proud of that.”

In 2021, von Ahn established the Luis von Ahn Foundation, which is “committed to a future where all Guatemalans are equally valued, can thrive and are able to fully exercise their human rights.” Supporting local community leaders and nonprofits, the foundation seeks to empower people, especially women and girls, in Guatemala.


Meet More Inspiring 2023 Inductees

As the National Inventors Hall of Fame grows to 624 Inductees this year, von Ahn becomes the youngest inventor to join our Hall of Fame family.

To learn more about the visionary creators and innovators who make up our latest class of Hall of Fame Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.

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