After creating CAPTCHA and making sure that we are not bots, renowned Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist- Luis von Ahn– turned his attention to language learning. With a mission to “make education free and accessible to everyone in the world”, Luis von Ahn created Duolingo. Duolingo is a cross-platform product primarily for language-learning. Duolingo offers its 300 million users 94 different language courses- including English, Hindi, Spanish, Mandarin and even High Valyrian.
With the hire of Burr Settles, Duolingo embraced AI. With “interests at the intersection of language, AI in tech, and cognitive science” Settles was the perfect fit for Duolingo. Soon after joining, Settles and his team, undertook the challenge of bringing AI into Duolingo.
How Duolingo Creates Value with AI
When a new learner comes to a platform, they are usually faced with the question of where should they start. Some folks might have a basic understanding of the language, some might have none at all and most usually fall somewhere in between- but where exactly?
Duolingo’s AI-driven adaptive placement test probes users with questions and determines exactly where they should start.
Spaced Repetition and Lag Effect
Spaced Repetition is where you repeat short lessons at various intervals rather than repeating the same information in a short time frame. Spaced repetition has been proven effective if one could determine if and how often to repeat a particular lesson. Lag Effect tells us that users can improve more if the gap between practice sessions is gradually increased. However, we need to determine how much lag is required for each user for each lesson.
Duolingo employed AI fed by the tremendous amount of data they had about their users to tackle these questions. For each word in the curriculum, Duolingo’s AI keeps track of how many times you’ve seen it, how many times you’ve gotten it correct, the modes under which you got it correct, and how long it’s been since you’ve practiced it. The AI uses this information coupled with its learnings from the 300 million other users on Duolingo to determine how much space and lag is warranted for each lesson for each user.
One of the greatest challenges to online conversational language learning is the value of offline conversations- to learn to converse in a language, you need to converse in the language. How can Duolingo aim to provide conversational grasp of a language without conversation? How can Duolingo offer conversations at scale to 300 millions users in 94 different languages? Enter AI enabled Chat Bots.
Duolingo created chat bot characters, designed to respond differently to a range of possible prompts. If the user ever got stuck, they could hit the “help me reply”. Duolingo’s chatbots are Renèe the Driver, Chef Roberto, and Officer Ada, with the promise of more characters coming to the app soon. Learners can use them to practice French, Spanish, and German, respectively.
Challenges and Opportunities
One of the foremost challenges and opportunities with AI is time. The cross network effect is strong in every AI system. The more users engage with an AI product, the more it learns and the better it gets. This is a huge opportunity for Duolingo. However, to get more users, the AI product would have to be accurate and effective. AI is never as good today at it will be tomorrow and therein lies the challenge. Duolingo will need to incentivize users initially to engage with the AI so that the it can become more reliable.
Duolingo also faces a unique challenge in having to provide similar features for a variety of languages. To provide the same offerings for its ever expanding list of languages is daunting. However, every language they leave behind is a potential for competition. While every language is different, there might be underlying structural similarities Duolingo can identify to decide which languages can be quickly AI enabled. Prioritizing based on demand alone might not necessarily reap the most value.
With travel becoming more desirable and affordable, more people are more exposed to more languages than every before. Duolingo has wisely leveraged AI to make their offerings more effective and efficient.If Duolingo is able to continue on this trajectory, I believe that Duolingo is poised to thrive in these times of wanderlust.