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Luis von Ahn awarded $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize

Inventor of CAPTCHA/reCAPTCHA and Duolingo recognized for commitment to invention, education, and mentorship.
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Luis von Ahn is the winner of the 2018 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention.
Luis von Ahn is the winner of the 2018 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention.
Photo: Justin Merriman

Luis von Ahn, Carnegie Mellon University consulting professor and CEO of Duolingo, has just been announced as the winner of the 2018 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention. Von Ahn has been a pioneer in cybersecurity as a co-inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA. He is also the co-founder of Duolingo, the most popular language-learning platform worldwide with the mission of making education free and accessible to everyone. Von Ahn joins a long lineage of inventors to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest cash prize for invention in the United States.

CAPTCHA, or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, is a now universally recognizable cybersecurity system, which websites use to prevent automated programs from inflicting large-scale abuse. CAPTCHA requires users to complete a computer-generated test of characters. While these tests are easy for humans to complete, computers cannot yet do so. CAPTCHA applications include, but are not limited to: authenticating website registration, protecting email addresses from scrapers, and blocking scalpers from buying or reselling tickets in large quantities. Von Ahn later invented reCAPTCHA, a new form of CAPTCHA that digitizes books and archives.

Currently, von Ahn is working full-time at his company, Duolingo, which offers 82 language courses to over 300 million users worldwide. Through Duolingo, von Ahn is making language education free, fun, and accessible to everyone.

Von Ahn’s dedication to improving the world through technology, as well as his commitment to mentorship and education, earned him the Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Lemelson-MIT Prize honors outstanding mid-career inventors improving the world through technological invention and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“Luis has created a novel resource for people around the world who need to learn a new language,” says Stephanie Couch, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “For some users, Duolingo is key to survival in a new country. Others use Duolingo to learn a language for business, leisure, or travel. Luis’ dedication to harnessing the power and promise of technology to engage and empower learners of all types is truly inspiring.”

“I am incredibly honored and grateful to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize,” says von Ahn. “Throughout my career, I’ve been passionate about using technology and invention to make a positive difference in the world – previously with reCAPTCHA and now with Duolingo. Earning this prize is a great testament to the work that the entire Duolingo team does in creating technology that’s made education free and accessible to millions of people worldwide.”

“We are excited to recognize Luis for his significant contribution to solving modern challenges such as cyber-security and global migration,” said Carol Dahl, executive director of The Lemelson Foundation. “His inventions underpinning reCAPTCHA highlight the fact that, even as machines get smarter, there is still an enormous need for human intelligence individually and collectively.”  

 Von Ahn will speak at EmTech MIT, the annual conference on emerging technologies hosted by MIT Technology Review at the MIT Media Lab on Wednesday, Sept. 12 at 5:30 p.m.

The Lemelson-MIT Program is now seeking nominations for the 2019 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Please contact the Lemelson-MIT Program at for more information or visit the Lemelson-MIT website to learn more.

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