Luis von Ahn is nothing if not ambitious. The inventor of the captcha and the founder of re-captcha has a new goal – to translate the web into every major language. Because web users speak hundreds of different languages, and over 50% of it is now in English, the web remains inaccessible to a huge number of potential users.
For Luis’s purposes machine translation is not good enough. Google translate will give you some sense of what is on a page but humans can still do a much better job. The difference is painfully obvious if you want to read a long blog post or an article from a foreign media site. The challenge Luis, Severin Hacker, and the rest of the team at Duolingo have set for themselves is how to get humans to translate the web. Their solution is to make translation the byproduct of something many humans around the globe are already doing – learning a new language. Because Duolingo produces something of economic value – translations – as a byproduct of the learning process, they can do something else that is really cool. They can offer a language learning service, that would otherwise sell for hundreds of dollars, for free. If you have ten minutes, watch Luis describe Duolingo in this TED talk.
We are thrilled today to announce our investment in Duolingo. By making language learning accessible to a huge audience around the world that could never afford a traditional language course, they have unlocked a skill that is the key to economic opportunity.
I am excited about this investment for another reason. A while back, I compared social networks to governments. I noted that like governments, networks don’t make anything, they just create the conditions necessary for their users to create value. Following that logic, a good network (like a good government) is one where the network architecture is so efficient that the network itself can get out of the way, imposing as little as possible on its users. A great network, gets out of the way, but also finds a way to peer produce the management of negative externalities. Craigslist, for instance, does this by crowdsourcing the management of fraud and abuse. The best network would then not only, get out of the way, and efficiently minimize negative externalities, it would also create positive externalities. Duolingo has done just that. The service delivers a fantastic language learning experience for free, while at the same time delivering another social good – the translation of the web.
I realize there are other services that create positive externalities. Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare, for example, all curate the web as a by-product of their users’ interactions with the service, but, by translating the web, Duolingo has set a new bar for the creation of direct, measurable, economic value. We welcome them to the portfolio.