What Do Tom Sawyer and the Founder of Duolingo Have in Common? (NSQ Ep. 5)

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Also: is there such a thing as too much science? With special guest Luis von Ahn.

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Relevant References & Research

Question 1: What do Luis von Ahn and Tom Sawyer have in common?

  • Our guest on this episode is Luis von Ahn, the C.E.O. and co-founder of Duolingo and a creator of CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart).
  • Luis worked on CAPTCHA while he was a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University. He co-authored the 2003 paper introducing the technology, CAPTCHA: Using Hard A.I. Problems for Security.
  • To explain how CAPTCHA works, Luis breaks down the theory behind the Turing Test of artificial intelligence. The test was originally imagined by mathematician Alan Turing in his seminal 1950 paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence.
  • Stephen references the famous fence-painting scene in Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. If you’re interested in revisiting the story, the full text is available on Project Gutenberg.
  • Luis tells Stephen and Angela about a form of CAPTCHA that can be used both for security and text digitization. Luis is the creator of this technology, called reCAPTCHA. A 2011 piece from The New York Times describes how reCAPTCHA was used to clean up the newspaper’s digital archives.
  • Luis confirms that Duolingo users have access not only to familiar languages like Spanish and Chinese, but also fictional languages like High Valyrian (from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series) and Star Trek’s Klingon. Duolingo lists their full course registry here.
  • Although Stephen is impressed with Duolingo, he says that “learning a second language if you’re an English-speaking American is pretty useless.” If you’re curious to hear more about the reasoning behind this statement, we recommend that you listen to Ep. 158 of Freakonomics Radio,Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth it?” However, knowing a foreign language is becoming more essential than ever. A recent report from New American Economy shows that the demand for bilingual workers in the United States rose significantly in recent years — going from around 240,000 in 2010 to roughly 630,000 in 2015. Demand for specific languages — Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic — increased particularly quickly.

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Question 2: Is it really worth it to publish millions of scientific research articles every year?

  • Angela underestimates the amount of scientific articles produced each year. She says it’s one to two million, but as we confirm in the fact-check, it’s actually about three million. For more fun facts about the massive production of academic articles, check out the most recent STM Report.
  • Angela says that a typical article will get “zero, one, maybe two citations.” A 2014 article from Nature confirms this. In the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (a database with more than 58 million papers), half of the papers were only cited once, if at all.
  • Luis tells a story about his PhD advisor, computer scientist and cryptographer Manuel Blum. Blum received the Turing Award in 1995 “in recognition of his contributions to the foundations of computational complexity theory and its application to cryptography and program checking.”
  • Angela mentions psychologist Dean Keith Simonton’s “Equal Odds Rule.” To learn more about the concept, we recommend checking out Simonton’s 1997 paper, Creative Productivity: A Predictive and Explanatory Model of Career Trajectories and Landmarks.
  • Angela says that when academics are not good communicators, they often take a frustrating approach when writing their articles — “dazzle them with formulas and passive tense sentences that are really long.” The physicist Alan Sokal was so frustrated with this form of writing, that he concocted a deliberately meaningless parody under the title Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. In 1996, it was accepted as a serious contribution to the journal Social Text.
  • Stephen mentions that he subscribes to the weekly digest from the National Bureau of Economic Research. If you too would like to seem like a total economics expert, without doing the tedious amounts of reading actually required of one, you can subscribe to the digest here.