In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Latin American inventors thrive - in U.S.

 

If you think that Latin America is doomed to remain behind in science, technology and innovation — as one could conclude from the latest international rankings of patents of new inventions — you should meet Luis Von Ahn.

Von Ahn, a 34-year-old Guatemalan computer scientist and entrepreneur, invented those pesky little test boxes with distorted letters that appear on your computer screen every time you buy concert tickets or access websites that want to make sure that you are a human, and not a machine.

The system, known as CAPTCHA, is being used by about 180 million people daily around the world.

But that was only his first major invention, when he was 22. Three years later, after obtaining his Phd. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and becoming a professor there, Von Ahn and one of his students created RE-CAPTCHA, an improved version of the human authentication test. They sold it to Google for a sum that — because of a confidentiality clause — he will only say was between $10 million and $100 million.

Last week, I talked at length with Von Ahn about his career, his latest project — a free language learning system called Duolingo — and about what Latin American countries should do to produce many more world-class inventors like him.

According to newly released data from the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations-affiliated agency, Latin American countries are at the bottom of the list when it comes to generating patents of new inventions.

Last year, the United States applied for 57,200 international patents of new inventions , Japan 43,600, China 21,500, South Korea 12,300 and Israel 1,600. Comparatively, all Latin American and Caribbean countries together applied for a total of about 1,200, WIPO statistics show.

In other words, South Korea alone produced 10 times more international patents than all Latin American and the Caribbean countries.

Von Ahn told me he left Guatemala at age 17 to study at Duke University, because there wasn’t any good school offering degrees in mathematics in Guatemala at the time. But that’s not the case in larger Latin American countries, where there have long been good science schools, and a growing interest in innovation, he said.

“Everything I have done could have been done in Mexico, Brazil or Argentina,” Von Ahn told me, referring to the computer programs he invented. “What I do does not require a $500 million scientific research project, like those that try to find a cure for cancer. What’s needed in Latin America is a culture of entrepreneurship.”

Von Ahn’s new Internet language learning system, Duolingo, has already enlisted 25 million users since it was launched in mid-2012. While there are many existing language learning websites — such as Open English, founded by Miami-based Venezuelan entrepreneur Andres Moreno, Voxy, and Rosetta Stone — Duolingo is one of the few that offers language courses for free.

How do you pay for it, if the courses are free? I asked him. It turns out that Duolingo funds itself by selling its students’ homework.

Von Ahn invented a system whereby Duolingo gets documents for translation from its clients, and gives them to its students to translate as part of their homework. Students later pick the best translation through a collaborative process, and Duolingo sells the final translated document at discount rates to companies such as CNN, for their multi-language websites.

“Usually, a professional translator charges 10 cents a word, whereas we can charge as little as 3 cents a word,” Von Ahn told me. “And the quality of the translations is good enough for our clients to be happy.”

My opinion: As I am finishing a book on innovation that I have been working on for several years, I am finding increasingly more hidden Latin American innovation treasures such as Von Ahn.

The only reason why many of them flourish outside their native countries is that the United States and other innovation-friendly nations offer them what Von Ahn calls an “entrepreneurial climate” that encourages their work.

There are no biological or geographic reasons why Latin America can’t make a big leap, and dramatically increase its dismal international patent figures in a relatively short time.

South Korea was poorer than most Latin American countries only four decades ago, and has become one of the world’s most prosperous nations thanks to its national obsession with quality education and innovation. So it can be done — and faster that most people think.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: Mexico’s education ‘abuse-meter’: a great idea!

    A Mexican group advocating for better education standards has done something that should be copied throughout Latin America — it erected an “abuse-meter” in one of Mexico City’s busiest avenues to inform passersby how much money from the country’s education budget is unaccounted for, or is being stolen, every minute.

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: U.N. chief is half-right on Venezuela’s crisis

    United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spends most of his time talking about the Middle East, Ukraine and global warming. So when I interviewed him last week, I wanted to hear his views on the political crisis in Venezuela and other issues in Latin America.

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: Mexico’s big oil reform gamble

    Mexico’s historic energy rules passed into law earlier this week were hailed by President Enrique Peña Nieto as the beginning of a new era of prosperity, but — if they fail to produce quick results — they could also lead to an equally historic leftist victory in the 2018 elections.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category