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Big Ideas

Luis von Ahn: Capturing Ideas for the Masses

"When I come up with an idea, I wait for about 6 months before I start implementing it - I continually improve the idea during this period."


Luis von Ahn is well known in the technology community and worldwide for his great innovations, including the development of the CAPTCHA, those strange little pictures of letters that we have to re-type whenever we sign up for a new social network or blog. Aside from his consistent creativity in the world of technology, von Ahn is an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University. He has a B.S. in mathematics from Duke University and is the recipient of a Microsoft Research Fellowship. He also became a MacArthur Fellow (a.k.a. the “genius award”) in 2006.

Innovations of Dr. von Ahn include:

  • The ESP Game, a tool that has been licensed by Google to improve the accuracy of the Google Image Search.
  • The reCAPTCHA, a new form of CAPTCHA that also helps digitize books. This clever twist on the CAPTCHA enables millions of web users to unknowingly “proofread” millions of words per day that computers are unable to properly digitize.

As an especially productive creative professional in technology, Behance’s big question for Dr. von Ahn was, of course, “how do you follow through on your ideas…how do you make them happen?”
Creative minds can generate ideas every minute. von Ahn insists that “it’s very important to start with a GOOD idea, and then spend the time in making it almost perfect.” He goes on to explain, “maybe the most characteristic thing I do is to not jump into an idea immediately. When I come up with an idea, I wait for about 6 months before I start implementing it – I continually improve the idea during this period. 99U of my ideas are really bad, so it’s important to think through all the issues.”

In general, a lot of my inspiration comes from people who challenge my line of thought.

As for staying organized an managing precious time, von Ahn has started to learn how to say ‘no’ to people. As he explains, “once you reach a certain level of success, everybody wants a piece of your time. I’m still learning how to (say ‘no’).” He also questions the conventional wisdom of researchers reading lots of books. Perhaps time is better spent refining ideas and exploring what isn’t already published. von Ahn states quite bluntly, “I don’t read books. I think it’s a waste of time.”

Von Ahn values collaboration with those who are critical of his ideas. He explains, “I speak with my fiancee, Laura Dabbish a lot. She is usually critical of everything I do, so that helps me refine my ideas. In general, a lot of my inspiration comes from people who challenge my line of thought.”

All of von Ahn’s projects seek to tap the energy and common knowledge of the masses. He explains, “Think about humankind’s biggest accomplishments: the pyramids of Egypt, the Panama canal, the Apollo project, etc. All of these required the collaboration of about 100,000 people. My question is: what can we do if we get 100 million people working together? Since the advent of the Web, for the first time in human history, we can bring this many people to work on a common goal. What can we do with this many people? I don’t think we can think big enough yet to figure this out.”

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