Design Notes, Episode 4

Talking Turing Tests and gamifying education with Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of DuoLingo

Design Notes is a show about creative work and what it teaches us, hosted by Google’s Liam Spradlin. The fourth episode is a special edition recorded at SPAN 2017 in Pittsburgh, and features Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of the language learning app DuoLingo. Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala and came to the United States for undergraduate and then graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University, where one of his first student projects led to the invention of CAPTCHA. In the interview, von Ahn and guest host Aaron Lammer discuss the benefits of choosing projects based on immediate impact and how language skills picked up on DuoLingo—the world’s most downloaded education app—can increase earning potential in the developing world.

Listen to Design Notes, Episode 4 Google Play, iTunes, Pocket Casts, DeezerRSS

DuoLingo's office in Pittsburgh, PA. See more of photographer Ross Mantle's shots from SPAN Pittsburgh.


On his mother giving him a Commodore 64 instead of the original 8-bit NES as a child “Unfortunately, I didn’t have very many games, and I didn’t have very many people that I knew that also had games to share, so I started trying to figure out how to make my own.”

On bridging economic disparity through education “If you’re in a non-English speaking country and you know English, usually you can make between 20-100% higher salary.”

On CAPTCHAs getting more difficult “What’s happening ultimately is that computers are getting smarter, and it’s getting harder and harder to find things that humans are better at than computers.”

On DuoLingo’s approach to keeping students motivated “Our inspiration really, was games. We very early on realized if we want to teach something to somebody over the internet, the biggest problem was staying motivated.”

Handy links for this episode:

  • Duolingo is the world's most popular language learning platform. The company's aim is to use technology to give everyone access to a private tutor experience, and to make that experience more effective by analyzing how millions of people learn at once.
  • CAPTCHA stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart” and was developed by von Ahn and several collaborators while at Carnegie Mellon University. A CAPTCHA is a kind of reverse Turing Test.
  • reCAPTCHA: Acquired by Google in 2009, this technology is a refinement of the original CAPTCHA, and allows users to confirm they aren’t robots with a single click.
  • Von Ahn spoke at this year’s SPAN Pittsburgh conference—watch his full talk.
  • Follow @duolingo on Twitter!
  • Download a PDF transcript of Design Notes, Episode 4

How to listen and subscribe:

Coming soon: On the next episode of Design Notes, we’ll hear from Mitch Paone, principle and creative director at DIA Studio in New York. In the interview, we explore the parallel nature of improvisational jazz and design, the value of constantly changing toolsets, and the difference between analytical and intuitive creativity. Want to say up-to-date with Google Design? Sign up for our newsletter and get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.