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Duolingo Cuts Jobs as Language Learning App Embraces AI

Last Updated on January 10, 2024 by SPN Editor

In a significant shift in the language-learning industry, Duolingo, a popular language learning App, has been progressively replacing its contract writers and translators with artificial intelligence. This move marks one of the most notable cases of a company opting for AI over human labor. Duolingo maintains that humans are still at the forefront of its language learning App and language lesson development and that AI is merely a tool used to enhance its products.

Throughout the previous year, Duolingo executed several rounds of layoffs, including during the summer and December. The company terminated contracts with individuals who were responsible for creating lessons and devising potential translation methods between languages, according to former employees.

Duolingo offers over 100 courses in more than 40 different languages. The language learning App guides learners through lessons, teaching them new vocabulary and grammar through various exercises.

The exact number of jobs lost remains uncertain, but the reductions impacted teams working on a multitude of language programs. Duolingo’s spokesperson, Sam Dalsimer, confirmed that the company reduced its contractors by approximately 10% at the end of 2023, but refrained from disclosing specific figures. The company currently employs over 700 full-time staff.

Dalsimer clarified, “We are not replacing human expertise with AI. AI is a tool we are using to enhance productivity and efficiency, quickly add new content, and improve our courses. In every case, we tried to find alternative roles for each contractor.”

He added that before the layoffs in August, workers were informed that the company “might need to modify current contractor roles to meet the organization’s evolving needs.”

Following the launch of ChatGPT by OpenAI just over a year ago, businesses worldwide have been exploring ways to utilize AI chatbots. These bots, capable of generating human-like text on virtually any subject, have been quickly adopted by marketers and online publishers to replace human writers. The majority of the affected jobs are lower-paid, entry-level positions. In Duolingo’s case, the changes primarily impacted contract workers, who lack the same protections and benefits as full-time employees.

Artificial intelligence has been utilized in translation for several years. Google leveraged early iterations of this technology, which eventually led to the development of advanced chatbots like ChatGPT, to significantly enhance Google Translate. However, Duolingo has spent the past year investigating how AI can be used to generate content for its lessons, thereby directly replacing the tasks previously performed by many contractors.

Despite the potential cost savings driving more companies to adopt these tools for writing, translation, and graphic design, AI skeptics and critics have highlighted that chatbots often make mistakes that necessitate human correction.

The changes at Duolingo came as a shock, particularly because the company had initially assured workers that they would not be replaced by AI. Benjamin Costello, a Russian-language translator and musician from Baltimore, who was dismissed from his contract work in August, believes the decision to terminate human contractors was a cost-saving measure. However, he argues that this has led to a decline in the quality of the company’s lessons.

After his dismissal, Costello used the course he had previously written lessons for and found numerous errors.

Costello remains doubtful. “I’m not seeing any evidence of it being used that way,” he said. “I’ve just seen evidence of it being used to eliminate people’s jobs,” He also revealed that he was not presented with an alternative job opportunity before his dismissal. Similarly, another contract worker, who was terminated in December, stated that they were not offered a chance to switch roles. They chose to remain anonymous due to fears of potential professional backlash from speaking to the media.

Luis von Ahn, the CEO and co-founder of Duolingo, assured investors that the company plans to use AI to enhance its operations. In March, Duolingo introduced AI features, including a conversation mode developed using OpenAI’s GPT4 technology. In June, the company announced that it had started using AI to formulate sentences for its lessons, which were previously crafted by humans.

In August, contractors involved in less popular language programs, such as English for Russian speakers, were laid off, according to Costello and two other anonymous workers. Then, in December, a larger wave of layoffs swept through Duolingo’s contract workforce, affecting more popular and high-quality lesson programs focused on languages like Spanish and Japanese, the workers reported.

Although Duolingo began internal AI testing at the start of 2023, contractors were initially kept in the dark about these developments, according to one worker. The company later announced that it had been conducting tests and that the outcomes were encouraging. Consequently, managers began hinting at potential changes to their work, without explicitly stating the reasons.

Ethan Mollick, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, noted that while technological advancements often create new job categories, those whose jobs are automated can experience personal economic distress. “This has occurred numerous times in the past,” Mollick said. “While most people end up in better situations, not everyone does.”

Established in 2011, Duolingo has rapidly and consistently evolved into one of the leading language learning Apps. As of September 2023, it boasted 83.1 million monthly users, marking a nearly 50% increase from the previous year. In November, the company projected its 2023 revenue to reach up to $528 million, surpassing Wall Street estimates. Duolingo’s stock value tripled throughout 2023.

Duolingo’s AI, dubbed Birdbrain, is engineered to augment the language learning process by tailoring lessons to the learner’s proficiency level. It employs a form of AI known as a Large Language Model (LLM), which excels at predicting the most probable completion of a text string, akin to a sentence. This is comparable to how your mobile device proposes the next words for your text messages.

The AI system in the language learning App operates by accepting a “prompt,” a set of comprehensive instructions, that guides the AI model in crafting a specific Duolingo exercise. These prompts serve as a Mad Lib-style template for generating Duolingo lessons. The model then generates an exercise with a single click.

Beyond exercise creation, Duolingo’s language learning App also monitors the frequency of your encounters with a word, the number of times you’ve answered correctly, the contexts in which you’ve answered correctly, and the duration since your last practice. This information is utilized to ensure that the exercises you encounter on Duolingo are optimally challenging, based on your strengths and weaknesses.

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