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A Guatemalan genius

By Josian Phillips, 

I came across the prodigious computer scientist, Luis Von Ahn, while researching technological advances in translation. Translation technology is catapulting forward in an attempt to hastily address the need to unite and globalise the world. Luis’ face appeared on my screen, and I soon realised I had happened upon someone rather spectacular.

Luis doesn’t think outside the box, he thinks outside the sphere. He is selfless and philanthropic. His thought processes expand out, embracing the entire human race, problem solving across the universe.

Luis Von Ahn is barely into his 30s, but has already been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the genius grant) and countless others, and is considered to be one of the 50 Best Brains in Science (Discover Magazine), and one of the Brilliant 10 (Popular Science Magazine). He’s certainly one of the most influential intellectuals of Latin America and Spain (Foreign Policy Magazine).

Luis Von Ahn is all around us. One of the pioneers of crowdsourcing, we encounter his ingenuity daily without realising it. He is famous for CAPTCHA* and reCAPTCHA – terms you may not know but will certainly recognise from the image below, developed as a security system to distinguish between humans and computers, and sold to Google in 2009 for an undisclosed sum.

But did you know that every time you type the CAPTCHA code you are crowd sourcing? Luis was worried about the time we wasted every time we deciphered the code. He wanted to harness our precious human brains. So now, every time we decipher a code we are digitising books – we’re being yoked into a huge global typing pool. Pure genius. Think of that next time you get hacked off with a CAPTCHA code.

Luis is now up to some new tricks in the world of translation. It’s going to be interesting…

We all want to be able to communicate with each other and share information. The Internet has connected billions of worldwide users, accelerating our capacity to communicate in a way that two decades ago we couldn’t even contemplate. But the speed of globalisation is disproportionate to the speed of technology, and we are finding ourselves globalising at a frustratingly slow rate.

The technology is in place, but language is our barrier. It is no wonder, when you consider that 230 languages are spoken in Europe alone. The Bible, famously the most translated publication in the world, has been translated into 2,197 languages – still some way short of the 6,909 living languages identified by Ethnologue (www.ethnologue.com). Wikipedia, the world’s largest crowdsourced reference website, is scantily translated.

Learn a language for free.

Then along comes Luis. He wants to translate the web, for free, into all major languages of the world. He considers machine translation untrustworthy, and wants to motivate people to take on this infinite translation project for free. He has done that by inventing Duolinguo, a language education programme beyond our dreams. I am learning Spanish, for free! All of us together, we could translate Wikipedia into Spanish in about 80 hours. I take my hat off.

Over to Luis Von Ahn. I am blown away and completely in awe of this man. He is addictively articulate and captivated me with in 10 seconds of watching the YouTube presentation below. It is 17 minutes long, but I assure you it’s a fascinating and amusing insight.

Enjoy and be inspired.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQl6jUjFjp4

Learn a language for free:
http://duolingo.com

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