Innovation Myths and the Unsexy Truths About Breakthroughs

By Mark Milian - 2014-04-01T16:15:07Z

Photograph by Amy Eckert/Getty Images

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The Master Plan

Luis von Ahn invented something that most people have encountered while surfing the Web: Captcha, that Web-security tool that requires users to enter a series of hard-to-decipher characters to access a site.

Sometimes, decoding those characters is too hard, leaving users unsure of what they're reading. That uncertainty extends to the technology's creator, who admits he doesn't always know what he's doing with these projects. There's no blueprint or master plan that leads to innovation, he says.

"It's common to assume that the innovator knew exactly what they were doing and that they knew all along it was going to work out," says von Ahn, whose latest project is Duolingo, an app that teaches users a new language while simultaneously translating the Web. "But my feeling is that they were usually pretty uncertain."

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