Why the squiggly title? The image above is a CAPTCHA. CAPTCHA is an acronym for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’. This was the fruit of studies by Guatemalan tech entrepreneur Luis Von Ahn. Von Ahn has realised a vision of mass collaboration at a global scale. I had the great pleasure of catching up with Luis and getting some insights into his success, which was really a by-product of a truly noble vision.
Imagine if every time you performed an everyday task in life you were contributing to a major worthwhile cause without it costing you a second thought. Every time you entered the SIM code on your phone, every time you punched a PIN at an ATM, every time you typed an email. Unbeknownst to many of us, when we are asked to enter those 2 squiggly words on a website form, we are not only ensuring the security of that site, but on a much larger scale we are contributing to the mass digitisation of books.
Computers find it hard to read scanned text from archived books and we, the crowd, can teach computers to read. Talk about killing two birds with the one stone. This is partly why Google acquired reCaptcha from Von Ahn and his colleagues for an undisclosed sum in 2009. One of the many Google projects is Google Books and as the name suggests the aim of this project is the mass digitisation of books.
This is more than global collaboration; it is innovative collaboration and requires very little effort from the end user. 200 million captchas (using reCaptcha) are entered every day. That works out at about 2.5 million books per year. Here’s the killer stat - this work has been done by 750 million people, 10% of the world’s population and we didn’t even know they were doing it. That is a monstrous effort and would be almost impossible to finance at a commercial level, so doing it this way is an ingenious solution. It gets you thinking how you can apply this thinking to your own world. Von Ahn has already found another way to use these small contributions by many to achieve a lot. His current focus is the mass translation of the Internet.
“I grew up in Latin America and I saw despite a huge appetite to learn a foreign language - most people could not afford to”. Von Ahn recognised that there is a huge amount of people using online language learning services like Rosetta Stone. Online language learning is a multimillion dollar industry in the U.S. alone with over 5 million paying in excess of $500 for the software to do so. Worldwide there are 1.2 billion people learning a foreign language.
Driven and encouraged by the success of Captcha and reCaptcha Von Ahn has achieved yet another vision. This vision is a lofty one to help millions translate the web while simultaneously learning a new language. This facilitates the translation of the web quicker than either computers or people could achieve alone.
“We started with just me and my PhD student Severin Hacker, we now have 27 on our team and are the number 1 language learning software on iOS and Android devices” said Von Ahn. They have amassed a staggering 7 million users purely through word-of-mouth (excuse the pun). It would cost $50m to professionally translate Wikipedia into Spanish alone. However, with Duolingo this could be achieved in 5 weeks with 100,000 users or 80 hours with 1 million users.
With so much hype about start-ups and their never ending focus on business models and seed funding it is so refreshing to see a company become successful as a result of creating a genuinely useful product such as Duolingo or reCaptcha. Von Ahn exudes enthusiasm in his quest to achieve something great and do something useful for all of humanity. Through mass collaboration he seeks to level the playing field and bring language learning to the 95% of the world’s population who cannot afford either $500 towards language learning software or education. What is more, he and Severin Hacker want to provide this service for free. It is fantastic to see social entrepreneurs realise lofty goals and get rewarded in the meantime.
Aidan McCullen is Head of Digital for Communicorp Group. He is an ex-Ireland rugby international, who played for Leinster and Toulouse. Aidan is responsible for Digital Revenue, R&D and innovation for Communicorp.
This article originally appeared in Newstalk Magazine for iPad in August, for more details go here.