Ashton Kutcher backs CMU duo's startup Duolingo
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A Carnegie Mellon University technology star's latest venture has attracted enough attention to secure funding from one of Hollywood's biggest television stars.
CMU announced Tuesday that Duolingo, a language translation website created by computer scientists Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker, has received a $3.3 million round of funding from New York-based Union Square Ventures and from an independent investment made by actor/producer Ashton Kutcher.
Union Square Ventures focuses primarily on technology investments and has invested in past successes such as Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and Zynga. Mr. Kutcher, who replaced actor Charlie Sheen in the starring role in the CBS comedy "Two and a Half Men," has put his money on other now-famous tech startups, such as Foursquare and peer apartment rental service Airbnb.
Duolingo uses a combination of computer exercises and real-world texts from the Internet to teach users new languages. It merges the best translated sentences, which are determined through an algorithm that detects the most common correct answers, into entire documents of translated works.
Users can scroll over words if they need clues for their translations, and the program automatically detects blatant errors. The site also is designed to track words or concepts that give users trouble and to focus on those for future lessons. The site currently offers lessons in English, Spanish, French and German but will soon add Portuguese and Chinese.
The ability to translate real-life content and stories has proven to be a strong factor in helping users remember what's learned, Mr. von Ahn said. "When you're doing the real-world stuff, such as reading a news report in German or French, you really feel like you're accomplishing something," he said in a press release. "It reinforces why you're working to understand this new language."
The company has been in its testing stage since November and eventually will go on to translate commercial documents in addition to what's on the Internet.
Over the course of seven months, Mr. von Ahn said beta testers have translated "tens of millions of sentences" into new languages. The translation results and apparently successful lessons were enough for Mr. von Ahn to put Duolingo up against the best similar services the market has to offer.
"Duolingo is really effective in two ways. People really do learn the language, and they learn it as well as they would with any other language learning software -- and the translations we find are as accurate as those that come from professional language translators," he said.
"People just learning a language are able to give translations that are really accurate. This way we can get multiple people to do translations and pick the best ones."
Mr. von Ahn, 33, is Carnegie Mellon's A. Nico Habermann associate professor of computer science, a distinction that the School of Computer Science awards to exceptional junior faculty members every three years.
He joined the faculty in 2006 after earning a doctorate in computer science from the school. His accomplishments in the field have been recognized worldwide, including through a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship and by Spanish-language Foreign Policy magazine, which last year named him as the most influential new thought leader of Latin America and Spain.
His partner, Mr. Hacker, is a Carnegie Mellon University doctoral student who co-founded Duolingo after discussing the idea of translating the Web with Mr. von Ahn in 2011.
Mr. von Ahn skyrocketed to tech sector fame in 2007 after creating Captchas, the online puzzles that require users to type odd-looking words and phrases in order to identify themselves as real people and access certain sites, His spin-off company reCaptcha Inc. used the typed phrases, which come from standard books, to create digital books. In 2009, Mr. von Ahn sold reCaptcha to Google for an undisclosed figure.
While his is often the first name touted by proud students and faculty on a campus full of emerging tech magnates, Mr. von Ahn is the first to dismiss notions that his work is more groundbreaking than that of his peers just because it has gotten more attention.
"I think I've done some good work, but a lot of people are also doing good work, so in the end there's a lot of luck involved," he said.
The New York-based Association for Computing Machinery begs to differ. Mr. von Ahn was awarded the organization's annual Grace Murray Hopper Award in May, which is given to an outstanding computer professional who is 35 years old or younger.
Besides being honored for his work with Captchas and reCaptcha, the organization credits him with creating the idea of "human computation" or crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing uses game play and other techniques to allow humans to help computers perform tasks that are beyond the technology, such as complex image recognition. The award, sponsored by Google, comes with a $35,000 cash prize.
Association president Alain Chesnais said in a statement that Mr. von Ahn's research "has changed the game for how we use computers. His innovations impact our personal usage of computing devices and make commercial applications of computing more secure. His potential for further altering how we work and play in the digital age seems boundless."
With his full attention devoted to Duolingo and the concept of a universally readable Internet, Mr. von Ahn said the world shouldn't expect to see any new ideas out of him anytime soon.
In the meantime, Mr. von Ahn noted about 30,000 of the 100,000 people who have used the service so far have become regular users who stay on the site for at least 30 minutes per week.
Considering the billions of people around the world locked out of an Internet where more than half of sites are written in English only, Mr. von Ahn's project of the moment may be his most significant to date.
He noted, "1.2 billion people around the world want to learn a foreign language. This way they can learn the language for free and while they're translating can also help to translate the entire Web."
First Published June 20, 2012 12:00 am