The $500,000 prize honors an outstanding mid-career inventor working to improve the world through technological invention and a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The prize receives support from the Lemelson Foundation, a leading funder of invention in service of social and economic change.
As a co-inventor of CAPTCHA, von Ahn has been a pioneer in cybersecurity. CAPTCHA, or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, has become a universally recognizable cybersecurity system used by websites to prevent automated programs from committing large-scale abuse. The programs require users to complete a computer-generated test that computers are not able to complete, enabling authenticated website registration and providing protection against third-parties looking to "scrape" email addresses, scalpers looking to buy or resell tickets in large quantities, and other forms of questionable online activity. Von Ahn subsequently invented reCAPTCHA, a version of CAPTCHA that can digitize books and archives.
"We are excited to recognize Luis for his significant contribution to solving modern challenges such as cybersecurity and global migration," said Lemelson Foundation executive director Carol Dahl. "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."
A consulting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, von Ahn primarily works at Duolingo, which makes eighty-two language courses freely available to more than three hundred million users worldwide.
"Luis has created a novel resource for people around the world who need to learn a new language," said Lemelson-MIT Prize executive director Stephanie Couch. "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's dedication to harnessing the power and promise of technology to engage and empower learners of all types is truly inspiring."
(Photo credit: Justin Merriman)