Professor named one of 2006's Brilliant 10 Scientists

In the mind of Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Luis von Ahn, online gaming is more than just entertainment — it is a tool for improving Internet searches.

Recently honored by Popular Science magazine as one of the Brilliant 10, one of 10 individuals shaping the future of science, von Ahn combines human thought with computer computation to push the traditional boundaries of human-computer interaction.

According to the national magazine, the list of scientists comprises “young guns” with “insight, creativity and tenacity … the foolishness needed to set out for the edge of understanding and sail right past it.”

Popular Science is not a new publication to von Ahn. He said that he remembers reading the magazine as a child. He also said that he was honored.

But with the new honor comes a set of expectations. “It makes me nervous, because now I feel like I have to do something really great,” von Ahn said.

Von Ahn’s love of technology also dates back to childhood. He received his first computer as a child and learned how to program at age 8. “I don’t know why I first got into computers. Maybe just because my mother bought me one,” he said.

He graduated first in his undergraduate class of 1600 students at Duke University. He then went on to pursue a graduate degree, receiving a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon in 2005.

A researcher in artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction, von Ahn works to combine human reasoning with computer computation.

If you have ever registered for Yahoo! e-mail or purchased baseball tickets, then you have probably come across one of von Ahn’s developments, called CAPCHTA.

Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) is a technique used to distinguish computers from humans.

It can also be used to secure online polls and e-mail accounts from “bots” or machine hackers.

Using this technique, the computer presents the user with the image of a distorted word. It then asks the user to type the word. The technique works because computers are unable to accurately read the distorted word. But people without visual impairments possess such ability.

Popular Science called von Ahn the “matrix builder” for his work in artificial intelligence. The magazine said that while most artificial intelligence researchers try to make computers imitate humans, von Ahn moves in the other direction.

When computers aren’t enough to accomplish a task, von Ahn turns to humans, showing just how closely machines and minds work together.

“He harnesses tens of thousands of people’s reasoning skills for those rare yet important jobs that are too important for computers,” Popular Science stated.

Labeling every image on the Internet is an overly demanding task for computers, but it’s not for von Ahn and the rest of the online gaming world.

Von Ahn recently created the ESP Game ( for exactly this purpose.

The ESP Game is an online program that presents randomly paired partners with an identical set of 15 pictures. Each partner must submit labels for the pictures without knowing the guesses of the other person. If two partners guess the same label, then the picture is given that name.

Von Ahn is undoubtedly a computer gamer. Another of his developments is the online game Peekaboom. The object of the game is for one partner, Boom, to reveal an image to his partner, Peek, so that Peek can guess the image. Partners try to get through as many pictures as they can in four minutes.

Von Ahn’s work has appeared in over 100 news publications, and he holds four patent applications.
Randal Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science, said that von Ahn takes a different approach to artificial intelligence.

“While his project might seem to some like something done on a whim, it’s actually making people teach computers,” Bryant said.

Bryant also said that von Ahn is a good match for Carnegie Mellon. “We feel like it shows the kind of thinking that goes on in our institution,” he said.