Duolingo from CMU – Think like a rain forest

The philosopher farmer Wendell Berry once described modern farming like this.

Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.

Typically, when faced with problems, we try to mitigate and resolve them one at a time. Each solution has a cost and at some point we run out of money. But sometimes you can work magic by reversing the process described by Berry. Take two or more problems and turn them into a single solution.

Here’s an example adapted from a TED talk given by CMU’s “Mr. CAPTCHA” Luis von Ahn.

Problem 1: Mr. X wants to translate a document.
Problem 2: Mr. Y wants to learn a foreign language.

Both Mr. X and Mr. Y are willing to pay for their respective services. But wait! Would it be possible to have Mr. Y learn Lithuanian while simultaneously translating Mr. X’s document for a client in Vilnius? It’s pretty clear it wouldn’t work as stated, but if Mr. X and Mr. Y are replaced by thousands and thousands of people, it just might. In fact, von Ahn swears that it does work, and his team built a site called Duolingo to prove it. Watch the video to see if you’re convinced.

If it works as well as von Ahn believes, the implications are staggering. Two hungry communities can feed each other, because the waste product from one group is the food of the other. And along the way this could eviscerate the translation and language instruction industries.

Don’t think like a farm. Think like a rain forest.