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20 Things You Didn't Know About Luis von Ahn

Luis Von Ahn

Luis von Ahn is an entrepreneur who has made waves and achieved huge success in the computing and technology industries. He is also a Consulting Professor in the Computer Science Department of Carnegie Mellon University.He is best known as being the co-creator of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, and for co-founding Duolingo. Although he is well known in business and technology circles, there are many facts about this talented entrepreneur that people do not know. Here are 20 interesting things that you probably did not know about Luis von Ahn.

1. He is Guatemalan

Luis von Ahn is of German Guatemalan descent, and he was born in Guatemala City on August 19, 1978. He remained in Guatemala until he moved to North Carolina to study for a BS in Mathematics from Duke University in 2000. He then studied for a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is now a Consultant Professor. Although Von Ahn now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he is fiercely proud of his Guatemalan roots. However, he did expereince some racism because he is Hispanic when he moved to the United States to study.

2. His First Computer was a Commodore 64

Von Ahn became interested in computers for the first time as a child. When he was eight years old, his mother bought him his first computer, which was a Commodore 64. It was this gift that began his lifelong passion for computers and technology. It is strange to think that had his mother not bought him this gift, his life may have followed an entirely different path.

3. He Has Been Awarded Many Fellowships

As one of the leaders in his field and a well-respected entrepreneur and academic, Luis Von Ahn has been awarded multiple fellowships. His first was the MacArthur Fellowship which was awarded to him in 2006. The following year, he was awarded the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship. In 2009, Luis Von Ahn was awarded the Sloan Fellowship and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship. Finally, he received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2012.

4. Von Ahn is Included in Many Recognition Lists

In addition to his talents being recognized by being awarded fellowships, Von Ahn has also been included in many recognition lists. These have included Fast Company’s 100 Most Innovative People in Business, MIT Technology Reviews TR35: Young Innovators Under 35,’s 50 Most Influential People in Technology, and Popular Science’s Brilliant 10. Furthermore, Smithsonian Magazine named him as one of the Top Innovators in the Arts and Sciences, says IMDb.

5. He Researched Cryptology

During his early research, one of the topics researched by Von Ahn was cryptology. This is the study and practice of techniques used for secure communication in the presence of third parties. Along with John Langford and Nicholas J. Hopper, this research then led to the first definitions of steganography, which is the practice of concealing messages, images, videos or files within a message, image, video, or file.

6. He Was Inspired by Limited Educational Opportunities

Growing up in Guatemala, Luis von Ahn saw limited opportunities for educations for young people, he told Medium. In fact, there is only around a 30 percent chance of a child growing up in Guatemala to learn to read and write. He realized that this was a wider problem that affected many poor countries as people cannot afford to pay for education. This inspired him to make something of his life despite his humble beginnings and to help others to achieve the same. He could not study math in Guatemala, and this is why he initially moved to the United States.

7. He Founded Duolingo to Widen Educational Opportunities

The reason that Von Ahn founded his company, Duolingo was so that people could have the opportunity to learn languages, regardless of their economic background. He wanted to give poorer people the chance to learn a language to broaden their future employment opportunities. Accessing courses online helps people to find other ways to learn beyond the boundaries of what is available in their country.

8. He Says That He Is Not Smart

Despite being at the top of his game and making a huge sum of money from his entrepreneurial ventures, Luis Von Ahn claims that he isn’t particularly clever. He says that if people asked those who work with him, they would all confirm that he is not smart. He believes his success is due to his hard work and determination rather than his brains.

9. Duolingo is Free but Still Making Money

As the aim of Duolingo was to make learning languages to everyone regardless of their financial position, the courses on offer have remained free. However, Luis von Ahn has still made money from the site. The money he has made has come partly through advertising revenue, and partly from selling add-ons to the courses and the minimal fees to take the language tests.

10. Bill Gates Once Tried to Recruit Von Ahn

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is a big fan of Luis von Ahn. Many years ago, he even offered the young entrepreneur a job at Microsoft Research. However, von Ahn turned down the position. He explained to Gates that he was grateful for the offer and that he knew Microsoft was doing cool things, but that he wanted to own what he did and make it alone. This was something that Bill Gates could understand and respect.

11. He Never Sold His First Big Invention

Many of Luis von Ahn’s entrepreneurial efforts have contributed to his financial success. However, his first big invention didn’t make him a single cent as he did not sell it. Along with some fellow students, he invented CAPTCHA while he was studying form his Ph.D. This is the system that helps websites to determine if a user is human or a robot. This is now widely used across the Internet. Not realizing its potential, Von Ahn gave away his invention to Yahoo! He has since explained that it simply didn’t occur to him to sell it as he was an academic trying to get a Ph.D. and that he and his fellow students were simply happy it was being used.

12. Von Ahn Loves Watching the Television

According to Geek Wire, one thing that Von Ahn likes to do in his free time is watching the television. One of his favorite series is ‘Halt and Catch Fire’. He has described this series as being a combination of ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘Mad Men’ at the same time.

13. He Was a Troublemaker at School

Louis Von Ahn always worked hard at school and was one of the students that consistently achieved top grades. However, this did not mean that he was the perfect student, as he was considered a troublemaker and spent many hours sitting outside the principal’s office due to his high jinks. One example that Von Ahn has given of the things he used to get up to at school is the time he hacked into a radio contest. The contest involved listeners guessing the top 10 songs of the week. Von Ahn would fax in multiple answers until he could determine the winning combination so that he could win the chance to be the DJ on the radio the following week.

14. He Once Made a Homework Machine

As a child, Von Ahn used his abilities as a computer whizzkid and tech geek to his advantage on several occasions. One of his cleverest ideas was to create a machine that speeded up homework. He used it to complete his penmanship homework, which involved him writing out the same letter repeatedly. The machine he created was very rustic and simply consisted of lots of pens fastened together. It operated using a small motor he had created, but the motor broke regularly. This was something for which he got in trouble when his teacher discovered what he was doing.

15. He Worked at Google for Over a Year

After he sold reCAPTCHA to Google, he worked for the Internet giant for a year and a half. He has said that Google is an amazing company and that he loved the time that he spent there. However, he knew that, ultimately, he would not stay for long as he did not want to work for another company, and he wanted to own all his own work.

16. He Has Tried to Avoid Becoming a Translation Company

At one time, Luis von Ahn and his employees were making money via crowdsourcing, which involved helping out websites such as BuzzFeed and CNN. They would translate their articles into various languages. However, this is something that Von Ahn no longer does. Not only was it too much hard work, but it was also steering his work in a direction in which he had no interest. They wanted to focus more on education than translation.

17. He is an Award-Winning Teacher

Luis von Ahn has won multiple teaching awards from Carnegie Mellon University for his unusual teaching techniques. He introduced a new course to the university in 2008 which is called ‘Science of the Web’. The course is a combination of social science and graph theory. Some of the topics covered in the course include auction theory, game theory, and network.

18. He is an Early Riser

In an interview with Entrepreneur, Luis von Ahn revealed that he is an early riser. He typically begins the day between 5 am and 6 am, and the first thing he does each day is to read his emails. Next, he checks the metrics for Duolingo from the previous day. He then works out for a very specific 16 minutes as this gives him energy for the day. At the end of the day, he will often go to bed straight after a late dinner, but he feels better if he ties up the day’s business before retiring for the day so that he doesn’t have any loose ends to deal with the next day.

19. He Didn’t Aspire to Become an Entrepreneur as a Child

Being an entrepreneur was not an aspiration that Von Ahn had from being a child. During his childhood, he changed his mind regularly about what he wanted to do when he became an adult. His first career aspiration was to become a fire truck, not a firefighter, and this was something that concerned his mother. Other roles that he thought he might enjoy when he was a child were a policeman, an astronomer, and a doctor. He thinks the media influenced his aspirations over the years. It was when he was an avid viewer of ER that he wanted to become a doctor, and when he went through a phase of watching police dramas on television that he dreamed of becoming a policeman because it seemed cool.

20. He Had His First Business Idea at 12

When he was just 12 years of age, Luis von Ahn had his first business idea. Unfortunately, it was not a good idea, nor was it as unique as he thought. The idea was to generate electricity through motion, and he genuinely believed that nobody else had thought of this idea before. He planned to set up gyms where people could exercise for free while also generating electricity for the local area. He did not realize that multiple similar ideas had already been tried. He now realizes that this was a bad idea because people are not very good at generating a large supply of electricity. The amount of electricity that a single gym could create would hardly be enough to run itself let alone another building in the area. Fortunately, his business ideas have since improved significantly.

Allen Lee

Written by Allen Lee

Allen Lee is a Toronto-based freelance writer who studied business in school but has since turned to other pursuits. He spends more time than is perhaps wise with his eyes fixed on a screen either reading history books, keeping up with international news, or playing the latest releases on the Steam platform, which serve as the subject matter for much of his writing output. Currently, Lee is practicing the smidgen of Chinese that he picked up while visiting the Chinese mainland in hopes of someday being able to read certain historical texts in their original language.

Read more posts by Allen Lee

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