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Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn wins $500K Lemelson prize from MIT

| Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, 9:03 a.m.
Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, speaks following the screening of 'Something Like Home' at Pittsburgh’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty on June 19, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, speaks following the screening of 'Something Like Home' at Pittsburgh’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty on June 19, 2018.
Luis von Ahn co-founder and CEO of Duolingo photographed on May 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Justin Merriman)
Justin Merriman
Luis von Ahn co-founder and CEO of Duolingo photographed on May 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Justin Merriman)

Praised for his “dedication to improving the world through technology,” Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, has been awarded the annual Lemelson-MIT prize.

He was granted the award and its $500,000 prize for his inventions of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, meant to prevent automated programs from accessing forms and databases, as well as the development of Duolingo.

Von Ahn will accept the award with a speech Wednesday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus. The award was announced at EmTech MIT, a conference hosted by MIT Technology Review.

“I am incredibly honored and grateful to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize,” said von Ahn in a prepared statement. “Throughout my career, I’ve been passionate about using technology and invention to make a positive difference in the world – previously with reCAPTCHA and now with Duolingo. Earning this prize is a great testament to the work that the entire Duolingo team does in creating technology that’s made education free and accessible to millions of people worldwide.”

The award, created by prolific inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, in 1994, is the largest cash prize for inventors in the United States. It is meant to recognize mid-career inventors improving the world through technological invention and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), according to a news release.

“Luis has created a novel resource for people around the world who need to learn a new language,” said Stephanie Couch, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, in a prepared statement. “For some users, Duolingo is key to survival in a new country. Others use Duolingo to learn a language for business, leisure or travel. Luis’ dedication to harnessing the power and promise of technology to engage and empower learners of all types is truly inspiring.”

Von Ahn was born and raised in Guatemala. The son of physicians, von Ahn earned his bachelor’s degree at Duke University and his doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. He joined the faculty at CMU’s School of Computer Science in 2006.

Along with his doctoral adviser Manual Blum, von Ahn co-invented CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing to tell Computers and Humans Apart, in 2000. The now-ubiquitous boxes that are a part of online forms improve cybersecurity by blocking bots.

reCAPTCHA, invented by von Ahn in 2007 and sold to Google in 2009, takes scanned texts and helps digitize books. The program captures texts from two million books each year, and has digitized 13 million articles from the archives of the New York Times.

Duolingo, which now has more than 300 million users worldwide, offers 82 language courses for free. The company was founded in 2011 by von Ahn and Severin Hacker and has recently developed podcasts and a film about the importance of language to refugees.

“We are excited to recognize Luis for his significant contribution to solving modern challenges such as cybersecurity and global migration,” said Carol Dahl, executive director of the Lemelson Foundation, in a prepared statement. “His inventions underpinning reCAPTCHA highlight the fact that, even as machines get smarter, there is still an enormous need for human intelligence individually and collectively.”

In 2006, von Ahn was recognized as a MacArthur Fellow — popularly known as the “genius grant” — for his work.

Jay Whitacre, founder of Aquion Energy and a Carnegie Mellon professor, was given the Lemelson award in 2015 for the sustainable batteries. The company has since emerged from bankruptcy and moved operations overseas.

New Kensington native Stephanie Kwolek, who died in 2014 at 90, was honored in 1999 with a lifetime achievement Lemelson award for her work inventing the polymer fibers that became bullet-stopping Kevlar.

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