As a result of the mentoring I received from Russ Ackoff, I am fascinated more by really good questions than by the answers. My colleague, Professor David Socha, pointed me to a Ted Talk by Luis von Ahn on “Massive-scale online collaboration“. Luis is a professor at Carnegie Mellon and the inventor of the internet security feature captcha and reCaptcha. For a look at the humorous side of captchas, check out CAPTCHArt.
When he found out the millions of hours that were being wasted 10 seconds at a time entering captchas, he asked the question “what value could we provide with that amount of time?” The answer was to reconceptualize re-captcha as a way to help translate older scanned books where OCR misses 30% of the text.
At the core of his research is how to use the value of hundreds of millions of internet users to provide society value a little bit at a time. His most recent exercise is Duolingo for using the process of learning a language to help translate large parts of the web. The question he asked of himself and his grad students was “how can we use the talents of 100 million people to translate the web to every major language for free?”
The answer is Duolingo. His value proposition is to learn a new language while simultaneously translating the web AND learning with real content. Today the business model for language learning is fundamentally flawed – a student has to pay >$500 to buy a Rosetta Stone course. While that may work for the rich, it doesn’t work for the poor around the world. This kind of business model is another aspect of our innovation in the university forum around the for profit university – how to provide value while you learn by paying with your time.
While David shared his excitement about this approach, I was immediately struck with how this is an excellent example of what Andrew McAfee was talking about in my post about Creating Jobs – Racing with Smart Machines. Duolingo illustrates McAfee’s point about us now being on the second half of the chessboard with technology advances. Having just written the post, my immediate thoughts went to what about all the jobs that will be lost by putting professional translators out of work? By making language learning free, you also put a Rosetta Stone out of business (now a $250M per year company).
Yet, as we discussed it some more, we realized that we had not factored in the implication of 100s of millions of people now being multi-lingual. Is Duolingo providing a huge pool of professional or semi-professional translators? Or how many more jobs open up to someone with multiple language skills?
For myself, I am delighted that there are brilliant and engaging professors like von Ahn who keep asking these wonderful questions that help drive us farther into the second half of the chessboard. Duolingo is living proof that you can do well by doing good.
What are other examples of these phenomena?