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Oct. 15: Carnegie Mellon's Von Ahn Wins Packard Fellowship


Byron Spice

Carnegie Mellon's Von Ahn Wins Packard Fellowship

Von AhnPITTSBURGH—Luis von Ahn, assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of 16 promising young scientists chosen by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation as a 2009 recipient of a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. Each fellow receives an unrestricted research grant of $875,000 over five years.

"Each year the Packard Foundation is honored to support a cadre of innovative young scientists and engineers who are attacking some of the most important research questions of our time," said Lynn Orr, the Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor at Stanford University, and chairman of the Packard Fellowship Advisory Panel. "Their research, and the talented students who will work in their research groups, will continue to have a profound impact on the scientific community for years to come."

Von Ahn, who earned his Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon in 2005 and joined the faculty in 2006, has pioneered an area of computer science that he calls "human computation" — combining human abilities with those of computers to solve problems that would be impossible for humans or computers to solve by themselves. Online, multi-player games are one method he has used to harness human brainpower, called Games With A Purpose (GWAPs).

Von Ahn also developed reCAPTCHAs — distorted word puzzles that people must solve to gain entry to certain Web sites or to register for certain Internet services. Like similar CAPTCHA puzzles, they are a security device for Web sites, but because reCAPTCHAs are made using text from pre-computer-age books and periodicals, solving them also aids in the digitization of old texts. Last month, Google Inc. acquired reCAPTCHA Inc., the Carnegie Mellon spin-off company that produced the puzzles.

The Packard Fellowship Program is among the nation's largest nongovernmental programs designed to seek out and reward the pursuit of scientific discovery with "no strings attached" support.

"This is a very prestigious fellowship, and we are pleased that Luis has gained this recognition for his work," said Randal E. Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science. "Luis has shown that he can take the 10-second segments that millions of humans use to solve CAPTCHAs and put them to practical use. That's quite a remarkable feat."

Previous Carnegie Mellon faculty winners of Packard Fellowships include Dannie Durand, associate professor of biological sciences and computer science, and Jessica Hodgins, professor of computer science and robotics.

Von Ahn was the recipient of a 2006 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a 2007 Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship and a 2009 Sloan Research Fellowship. In 2008 Discover magazine named him one of the 50 Best Brains in Science. In 2007 Technology Review named him to its TR35 list of Young Innovators Under 35 and in 2006 Popular Science named him one of its Brilliant 10.


Pictured above is Luis von Ahn, assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.