Luis von Ahn in Duke PhD robes
Centennial Spotlights

Luis von Ahn

You’ve almost certainly used the anti-spam tool reCAPTCHA – those random letters you have to type to prove you are not a robot. But did you know a former Duke student created it?

Luis von Ahn earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Duke University in 2000, graduating summa cum laude, and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in 2005, where he continues to work as a consulting professor in the Computer Science Department.

von Ahn told Nova Science Now that his interest in computers began when he was eight years old and his parents bought him a Commodore 64 computer. He learned to program as young as 10 and created a number of computer games including The ESP Game and Verbosity.

At the age of 27, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, widely known as a genius grant.

“So now that you’ve won the genius fellowship, every time you do something stupid—which happens all the time, with me—it’s always the same joke: ‘Haha, I thought you were a genius.’ So you really can’t do anything stupid anymore. But I do stupid stuff all the time,” he told Nova Science Now.

In 2009, after selling two of his companies to Google, he and an undergraduate student developed Duolingo, a language education platform. The app was released in 2012 and he continues to serve as its CEO.

In 2017, von Ahn was one of seven people to receive honorary degrees at Duke University’s commencement exercises. That same year, the Guatemala native was named an NBC Latino 20 for his work.

He has also been named one of the 50 Best Brains in Science by Discover, Popular Science’s Brilliant 10, ‘s 50 Most Influential People in Technology, MIT Technology Review’s TR35 and Fast Company’s 100 Most Innovative People in Business.