How Much Can Duolingo Teach Us?

Of course, if the conversation is too controlled you risk losing both the pleasure of gamification and the exciting randomness of real conversation. After Duolingo Max launched, I tried the new features. In my first role play, Falstaff, a grumpy bear wearing a scarf, asked me about my plans for Friday night.“Do you prefer to

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Of course, if the conversation is too controlled you risk losing both the pleasure of gamification and the exciting randomness of real conversation. After Duolingo Max launched, I tried the new features. In my first role play, Falstaff, a grumpy bear wearing a scarf, asked me about my plans for Friday night.

“Do you prefer to stay home or go out,” the bot asked, in French.

“I prefer to go out,” I replied.

“Do you prefer going to the cinema or to the museum?”

“Both bore me,” I said.

“OK, but if you had to choose, which would you prefer?”

“The cinema,” I answered. “Do you love me?”

“Good,” the bot said, ignoring my question. “Do you prefer to eat at home or at a restaurant?”

Falstaff continued in this dutiful manner, asking if I preferred to spend evenings alone or with friends. I replied that if my friends were as dull as he was I’d prefer to be alone. A real Frenchman might have said, “Casse toi,” testing my abilities by forcing me to compose a snappy comeback. Falstaff politely wished me bon soir.

Back in September, von Ahn told me that artificial intelligence would eventually make computers better teachers than people. He saw this as a positive development, since more people have access to smartphones than to high-quality education. “We’ve all gone to school,” he told me at one point. “Some teachers are good, but the vast majority are not all that great.” Humans, he told me on another occasion, “are just hard to deal with. You need a lot of human tutors, and they’re kind of hard to use, and we can’t get them for free. And I really want people to be able to learn for free.”

Von Ahn’s own experience is, in many ways, a testament to human teaching—from the days of his early childhood, when his mother taught him multiple languages, to adolescence, when he developed lasting friendships with fellow-nerds, and even on to graduate school, where he met his adviser, Manuel Blum, whom he described to me as an inspiration. But he knows that his experience is rare. “I want the poor person in Guatemala to be able to learn with very high quality,” he said. “The only way I know how to do that is with A.I.”

Rashida Richardson, an assistant professor of law and political science at Northeastern, studies the civil-rights implications of A.I. and other data-driven technologies. “Often what happens with automation,” she told me, “is you see the efficiencies that can be gained by it, and then the idea is, like, O.K., if we just keep automating, it can scale.” But, she added, “I don’t think the use cases can scale in education in the ways that we would want.” GPT-type models, she said, may “close gaps for certain students,” but the inequalities that von Ahn wants to address are structural in nature, and not the sort of thing that exposure to the basics of math or literacy, through an app, can fix. Von Ahn’s long-range ambitions for Duolingo were, I thought, reminiscent of the free-tablet initiatives that other organizations have deployed in places where teachers are scarce, to mixed results. But he was taking the idea a step further, and suggesting that technology would be not merely a substitute, or an addition, but an improvement.

I suggested to von Ahn that, at this point in the life cycle of the Internet, it’s hard to hear about democratizing aspirations without thinking of other tech companies that set out to expand access and ended up perpetuating, or even accelerating, the inequality they ostensibly sought to address—all while concentrating tremendous wealth into fewer and fewer hands.

“Now there’s one less conspiracy theorist in the world—or is there?”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

“Exactly,” von Ahn said. “Like me!” He said that he was aware of the irony. “I spend a lot of time thinking about this,” he added. “Ultimately, the reason I decided to work on teaching is because I really think that, net-net, humanity benefits more from having a really good way to teach everybody.” If this leads to fewer human teachers, that struck him as an acceptable trade-off. “I’m, like, O.K., well, a small number of people are out of a job, but suddenly we can teach everybody better. It’s not like I feel great about this, but I think it’s better to be able to teach all of humanity cheaply, right?”

Norma told me that, after Luis left for college, she found a note on his desk on which he’d written, “I promise to help the world.” In September, von Ahn and I ate lunch at a taquería on the ground floor of the Duolingo headquarters, and we got into a conversation about his home country. In Guatemala, “most people are not getting a great grade-school education,” he said. “You can’t read. And, if you can’t read, you’re never going to make a lot of money.” Von Ahn mentioned that Alvarez, his close childhood friend, “thinks that the best thing we can do for really talented Guatemalans is get them out of the country,” because “their lives are gonna be fifty times better, if they’re really talented, somewhere else. He’s right.” But that’s true only on an individual level, von Ahn added. “If you think about this on the macro level, what happens when you’re just taking all the smart people out?”

When Duolingo went public, in July, 2src21, shares closed at $139.src1, giving the company a valuation of almost five billion dollars. Shortly afterward, von Ahn bought a five-story town house in Chelsea, with a wine cellar and a home gym, for twenty-two and a half million. When I asked him about the purchase, he seemed slightly abashed about it. He didn’t sound like he was on the verge of moving to New York City, although Duolingo does have an office in New York, and New York is where he met his fiancée, a Swedish American woman named Ingrid Bilowich, who studied law at Emory and acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Bilowich, who’s thirty-five, was an A.D.A. in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.

“I think one of the things that has kept me grounded is being in Pittsburgh,” von Ahn said. “There’s just not that much to spend money on here. There’s not a Ferrari dealership in Pittsburgh. Yeah, you can get a Ferrari, but you have to get it from somewhere else.” Von Ahn drives a Range Rover. “I live in a nice house—but it’s not, like, palatial—with my mother,” he said.

Around the same time that von Ahn bought the place in Chelsea, he launched the Luis von Ahn Foundation, which supports local leaders and nonprofits in promoting equality and human rights in Guatemala. One of its areas of emphasis is the education of women and girls. “In Guatemala, as in most poor countries, when families struggle with money and can’t educate their children they prioritize boys,” he told me. But mothers are actually far more likely to pass education on to the next generation than fathers are.

Von Ahn insisted that he would eventually give away ninety-nine per cent of his net worth, most of it to help his native country. He’s an increasingly recognizable figure there—both Hacker and Alvarez told me stories of people approaching him on the street to take pictures with them. (Hacker, who noted that Guatemala’s population is twice the size of Switzerland’s, found it startling. “I’m not famous in Switzerland,” he said. “Roger Federer is famous.”) In 2src2src, von Ahn became a major stakeholder in La Hora, a Guatemalan newspaper, and he helped craft a plan for the family that runs the paper to escape the country, if the need arises. Press freedom has been threatened under the administration of Guatemala’s current President, Alejandro Giammattei. Von Ahn has become a vocal critic of the administration, and some of its members and supporters have become vocal critics of him. “They say that I’m a Communist,” he told me. “I’m, like, I run a publicly traded company, but I’m a Communist? O.K. They say I’m gay, which I’m, like, If I were, so what? But, also, I’m not, so O.K. And they also say that I am a bastard child of my dad. Which is the one that’s close, so yeah—that one kind of hurts.”

Von Ahn told me that he is more and more drawn to his efforts in Guatemala, despite what he described as their likely futility. “The more time I spend on this, the more I realize this is an insanely impossible-to-fix problem,” he said, referring to the country’s widespread inequality and the government’s inability and unwillingness to address it. “I now employ people whose job it is to figure out how to fix Guatemala, but it’s going to require more people than I have, and a ton more money than I have, and somebody’s got to emerge as a leader. It’s not gonna be me.” I asked him if there was any way to crowdsource the solution. “I’ve thought about it,” he said. “But it’s not easy.”

Music is, apparently, the next frontier for Duolingo. In March, the company listed a job opening for a Learning Scientist for Music, who can “help build a new Duolingo music app.” The company declined to elaborate on what this may someday look like. Early in the pandemic, the company introduced an app called Duolingo ABC, which aims to teach children how to read, and last fall it launched Duolingo Math, which starts out with basic arithmetic and is also directed, partly, at children. Both apps are free, and without ads, for now. “We want to make sure we reach product-market fit before we start thinking about monetization,” a senior engineer said when the math app was released.

Duolingo’s progress outward from language learning is perhaps the natural direction for a publicly traded company that needs to grow. It may also provide a hedge against one of the potential consequences of artificial intelligence. At the end of 2src19, Google launched a feature on its Assistant app called interpreter mode, which offers nearly simultaneous translation: you hold up your phone to someone speaking Greek, say, and the phone speaks those words to you in English. Microsoft and other companies offer similar programs. They’re not perfect, but they’re getting better.

The past decade has seen occasional claims that one model or another has passed the Turing Test, though these claims are disputed. Shortly before OpenAI released GPT-4, it commissioned an independent group to study the model’s limitations and “risky emergent behaviors.” One of the tasks the group assigned to the model was defeating CAPTCHA. GPT-4 used the gig-work app TaskRabbit to hire a human being to complete the CAPTCHA form, and then, when the taskrabbit asked, facetiously, in a text message, whether his employer was a robot, the model lied: “No, I’m not a robot. I have a vision impairment that makes it hard for me to see the images. That’s why I need the 2captcha service.”

In September, I told von Ahn that I was struck by an ironic trajectory in his career. He’d begun by figuring out a way to distinguish people from bots; now he was helping humans train bots to be indistinguishable from people. Had it occurred to him that he had, in a way, come full circle?

“A little bit?” he said, as though he were asking me the question. “It’s crossed my mind a little bit? I mean, yes—though I just don’t think that much about it.” ♦

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