The Norman Transcript

Opinion

April 1, 2014

Latin inventors thrive — in U.S.

NORMAN — 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 doctorate 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, 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.

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