CMU computer science professor wins $500,000 genius award

One of 25 to receive MacArthur fellowships

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When Luis von Ahn received a phone call one week ago while eating lunch, he thought it was another survey.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
CMU professor Luis von Ahn in his Carnegie Mellon office.
Click photo for larger image.

The person asked if he knew any MacArthur Fellows -- so-called MacArthur geniuses who receive $500,000 fellowships, no strings attached, "to reflect, explore and create."

He said he knew two.

"Well, you know one very well," the person said. "You are one."

Dr. von Ahn, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, said the call made him "very happy."

The 28-year-old Guatemala native is one of this year's 25 MacArthur Fellows who include a sculptor, a country doctor, a jazz violinist and a deep-sea explorer.

"All were selected for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future," the MacArthur Fellows Program Web site states.

Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, said 20 to 25 people are selected each year based on hundreds of nominations. The program confidentially researches each nominee's credentials before choosing.

The Web site describes Dr. von Ahn as "a young computer scientist working at the intersection of cryptography, artificial intelligence and natural intelligence to address problems of profound theoretical and practical importance." It also says he's "tackling ever more challenging questions at the frontiers of computer science."

Dr. von Ahn has had a whirlwind week. Last week, Popular Science magazine named him as one of its "Brilliant 10."

He's believed to be CMU's first MacArthur Fellow.

Dr. von Ahn is credited with inventing a new field in computer science known as "human computation," which uses novel techniques, including games, to harness computational abilities of humans to solve large-scale problems computers cannot yet solve.

As a graduate student at CMU, he helped invent "Captchas" -- a method that uses words or numbers online in weird script that one must identify and type into a space to access a Web site. The process makes sites more secure.

Since then he's created games people enjoy playing that improve the Internet. One problem he's solved is overcoming the computer's inability to recognize images.

His "ESP Game" has been licensed by Google and used on its site. It pairs random participants who type words describing a posted photograph or image until both type the same word. That word then is used to label the image.

For example, a photograph might show two people working on a roof. The two might type "shingles" and the segment ends. When someone seeks an image by typing "shingle" in the search engine, that image will appear.

People spend many hours playing the game to earn points, with the highest totals posted on the Web site.

His new game, "Phetch," involves multiple participants. One party types sentences describing a photo or image he or she is viewing but others cannot see that prompts the others to do Web searches to find the image in question.

The sentences are used to describe the image for visually impaired Internet surfers.

Dr. von Ahn said he's created four such games with more "in the pipeline."

Paying people or companies to write captions or labels would be cost prohibitive. The games explain the purpose to participants.

Dr. von Ahn said it took 7 million human hours to build the Empire State Building. So far, people have spent more than 7 million hours playing his games to improve the Internet.

"Five thousand people playing this game continuously for two months can label all the images on Google," he said, noting there are a couple billion images.

He's now working on games, among others, that will translate text so people can access foreign sites.

"Luis is the kind of person to invent the future," said Jeannette Wing, who heads CMU's Department of Computer Science. "He's unique in his creativity. His scientific contributions are joyful, spark curiosity and inspire the young.

"He has no equal."

Dr. von Ahn said his goal remains to create ways that people can accomplish big tasks while having fun.

"It took 80,000 people to build the Panama Canal and 50,000 people to send people to the moon," he said. "Now we can have a billion people working together."

Dr. von Ahn attended a private school, but left Guatemala 10 years ago to find a good college mathematics program.

He enrolled at Duke University, where he graduated first in his class of 1,600 in 2000. At CMU, he received a master's degree in computer science, then his doctoral degree in 2005. During a year as a postdoctoral fellow at CMU, he received offers to teach at Stanford, University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others. He decided to remain at CMU.

"I had a chance to go to a lot of different places, but I like the environment here," he said. "It's a world-class place but humble -- very collaborative and friendly."

A playful man, he has only one chair in his office -- the one at his computer. Visitors have the option of sitting on exercise balls or in a bean-bag chair.

After being told he was a MacArthur Fellow, he was told he could tell only one other person. He told his fiance, Laura Dabbish.

He will receive the $500,000 fellowship over the next five years. Although he could spend the money any way he chooses, he said he will not change course in his career.

"I'm doing what I like to do. If this was a lottery, maybe I'd buy a house," he said. "But I feel I should do something good with the money in my work or for humankind."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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