Washington – Luis von Ahn, who left his native Guatemala at 17 to study in the United States and has since become a computer science pioneer, now is on a mission to translate Internet content into all of the world's major languages and bring the Web to a much broader global user base.
The bold endeavor involves giving Internet users themselves the lead role, transforming the work of translation into "something that millions of people want to do, and that is to learn another language," Von Ahn said in an interview with Efe.
"We thought that maybe we could do it with a computer but we saw we couldn't, that (machine) translations are really bad for now and we need human beings," Von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said.
That realization led to duolingo.com, a platform in which anyone can learn a language by translating sentences on the Web, with beginners working with simple sentences and more advanced users handling more complex ones.
The idea behind the platform, according to the Web site's intro, is for users to "learn a language for free while at the same time helping to translate text from the Web, enabling a wealth of language-shackled information to be liberated for all of humanity."
Users of duolingo.com receive three phrases at a time in a foreign language of their choice - all taken from the same paragraph - and are given the task of translating them into their native language.
The program takes the translation and combines it with responses from other users, with the most frequent answer considered to be the "correct" one.
"The translations aren't perfect but we've confirmed that they are very, very good," Von Ahn said.
Although many language-learning resources are available on the market, "they cost a lot of money, some up to $500, and for someone in Latin America that's a great deal of money," the professor said, adding that people in that region do not generally learn English as a hobby but to earn more money.
The Web site was initially launched using texts in Spanish, English and German, but plans are to add French, Italian and Mandarin shortly and eventually cover the world's 15 most widely spoken languages.
Von Ahn recalled that he arrived in the United States in 1996 with the dream of enrolling in a university to study mathematics. But he later found himself drawn to computer science, "a newer, more dynamic field that is changing more every day."
Through his research, he developed his concept of "human computation," which focuses on designing programs that combine human and computer intelligence to solve problems that neither could solve alone.
One example is CAPTCHA, a challenge-response test using distorted letters and numbers that is deployed to protect Web sites vulnerable to spam e-mails and denial-of-service attacks.
Online users type in the letters and digits they see to solve the test, which has been designed to be unsolvable by a computer.
At 33, Von Ahn already has been named Foreign Policy magazine's most influential Latin American intellectual and last year was included on a list of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine.
This newfound recognition is a source of pride personally and especially for Guatemala, "a small country with few resources," Von Ahn said, adding that after he completes his work with duolingo.com he would like to "do something specifically for Guatemala and Latin America."