Back to top
Post Image

Luis von Ahn

In our Celebrating Innovator’s series, Artemis highlights science and engineering pioneers whose vision, grit, and tenacity led to today’s ultra-high performance tech. In this installment, we spotlight Luis von Ahn, a computer scientist and entrepreneur best known for his pioneering work in the field of human-computer interaction and for coining the term “CAPTCHA." Von Ahn’s work has played a pivotal role in making the internet a safer and more accessible place. He is also one of the founders and CEO of Duolingo, one of the world’s largest online language learning platform. 



The son of two doctors, Luis von Ahn was born on August 19, 1978, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. His early interest in discovering how things work was sparked by exploring the machinery in the candy factory owned by his mother’s family. At age 8, von Ahn’s technical curiosity was further piqued when he received and showed aptitude in using a Commodore 64 personal computer. 

Luis von Ahn earned a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Duke in 2000. He went on to receive his Masters degree and Doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon in 2003 and 2005. During his time at Carnegie Mellon, he worked under the guidance of Manuel Blum, a renowned Venezuelan-born American computer scientist.

In 2000, in response to a request from the web portal Yahoo!, a Carnegie Mellon team that included von Ahn created CAPTCHA. CAPTCHA, or “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” was quickly adopted across the Internet to distinguish human users from automated bots. CAPTCHA works by generating tests that humans can pass but computers cannot, typically by presenting distorted text that users must correctly retype before gaining access to a website or program. This innovation has played a crucial role in enhancing online security and protecting websites from malicious bot activities such as corrupting search results and bypassing queues to reserve thousands of event tickets. 

Luis von Ahn is also a pioneer in using crowdsourcing as a way to leverage human intelligence to solve complex problems that computers alone cannot master. His co-development of “reCAPTCHA,” alongside a Carnegie Mellon team that included Manuel Blum and others, resulted in a system that not only protects against bot attacks but also assists in the digitization of books by having billions of Internet users transcribe scanned text as they complete the verification tests. This ingenious idea has enabled the digitization and preservation of countless volumes of world literature as well as over a century’s worth of archives from The New York Times. reCAPTCHA was acquired by Google in 2009.

In 2011, Von Ahn and Severin Hacker co-founded Duolingo, now the world’s largest online language learning platform, which provides free education to over 500 million users. Duolingo offers courses on over 40 languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, and French as well less commonly studied languages such as Swahili, Haitian Creole, Navajo, Klingon, and Welsh. In 2021, Duolingo was identified by Time Magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential Companies in the World.”

Luis von Ahn holds 13 U.S. patents. He has been named a MacArthur Fellow, a Sloan Fellow, a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow, and has received other awards and honors too numerous to mention here. 

In addition to recognizing his inestimable contributions to computer science, Artemis admires Louis von Ahn for his humanitarian achievements, including the 2021 establishment of 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. His work has had a profound impact on internet security, worldwide language education, and the advancement of human-computer dynamics. Luis von Ahn is a visionary scientist and entrepreneur who continues to inspire the world with technical innovations as well as a vision for using technology to provide everyone on the planet with access to the best quality of education.