Friends in High Places

It is really helpful in life to have friends in high places, as in high IQ’s.  I had the privilege and honor to work with Luis Von Ahn in the renowned computer science department at Carnegie Mellon.  You know his work if you have ever bought a concert ticket online.  His reCAPTCHA invention was created to prevent computer automated purchases of mass tickets.  In 2007, at the height of Miley Cyrus/Hanna Montana fame, tickets to the Pittsburgh concert were sold out in minutes on Ticketmaster.  I remember checking into these tickets and saw prices ranging from $500-$2000.  I knew she was popular but this was nuts.  This same scenario took place in multiple cities.  The original tickets priced between $60-$200 were bought by a computer generated program and resold at ridiculously inflated prices.  The sad thing is that people actually bought these tickets and the culprit was never caught.  So anytime you get frustrated by typing in that word you have decipher – realize it is to insure that you are a real thinking breathing person.  One thing a computer cannot do is think or decipher.  Turing test devotees may beg to differ but that is another argument entirely.  CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.

But preventing computerized theft along with spam is just the tip of the ice berg for Luis.  He has a grand plan to solve world problems by combining the thought processes of millions of people collectively and it’s working splendidly.  Each time you solve a reCAPTCHA you are helping decipher text for physical books being digitized that were written before the computer age.  About 200 million CAPTCHAs are being solved by humans around the world every day.  Even though that works out to only ten seconds per person, it equals 150,000 hours of work each day.

Luis’s latest project is called Duolingo.  It is a free service for people wanting to learn a new language (French, Spanish, German and English) through reading, writing, speaking and listening.  My nine year old daughter is using it to learn Spanish while translating the internet to Spanish.  How cool is that.  By Duolingo’s estimate, one million people could translate all four million-plus English Wikipedia pages to Spanish in 80 hours.  All for free.

Not only is Luis a genius.  He is generous.


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