Compsci 82, Fall 2009, Luis von Ahn

(from his blog, March 2009)

I sometimes want to fail more people in my classes. This is not because I am evil (although some people here seem to think so), but because I want the people who graduate from our computer science program to be truly the best in the world.

(from an article in Smithsonian Magazine on innovators)

Computer solitaire eats up billions of man-hours a year, he [von ahn] points out, and does nobody any good. But he says his "games with a purpose" will accomplish all sorts of useful tasks. Players will translate documents from one language to another or make it easier for blind people to navigate the Web --- all while having fun...

What excites researchers about von Ahn's "human computation" work, as he calls it, is less the prospect of getting people to accomplish boring, repetitive chores than the promise of training computers to do the chores themselves. Many tasks that are easy for people are surprisingly difficult for computers, especially those that children learn easily, such as classifying objects, recognizing faces, learning verbal languages and reading handwriting.

(from Business Week article.)

But this isn't a story of man versus machine. Von Ahn didn't simply write a program that processes information faster than a human. This is a story about man and machine, and about the researcher whose Web-based programs harness uniquely human abilities---such as reading or knowing common-sense facts---and then aggregate that knowledge to solve large-scale, long-standing problems of computer science.

Von Ahn calls his field "human computation," a jargony term that belies the impact that he is already making outside of academia. "Luis combines great ideas with insightful implementations to produce results that are truly remarkable," says Josh Benaloh, a cryptographer at Microsoft Research who hired von Ahn as a summer intern in 2004 when he was a graduate student. "There is simply no comparison between Luis and other young researchers."

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