From its apps’ customized character voices to determining an individual user’s lesson pathway, Duolingo has long used artificial intelligence in its digital learning products. Now, the East Liberty-based app maker is taking that tech to the next level with an OpenAI partnership.
With a subscription that combines all of the educational elements of previous products and AI-powered features, the Pittsburgh company’s newest product, Duolingo Max, aims to offer users a more immersive learning experience.
At first, Duolingo Max will only offer courses in Spanish and French, and be available in six countries. But for those who use it, Principal Product Manager Edwin Bodge told Technical.ly, it’ll be as good as having a personal tutor in the room to look over your work.
“We’ll use generative AI to explain as if a tutor is explaining to you why you got that answer right or wrong,” Bodge said. “The main differentiator here is, previous solutions have allowed us to bring up a good explanation that applies to your specific mistake, but [that explanation] might not be highly specific.”
Duolingo Max, Bodge explained, elevates its feedback by explaining which grammar concepts were misunderstood and how the user can supply the right answer moving forward. The product was developed by a group of five engineers led by Bodge, and a handful of others who contributed elements such as research.
“It was a really quick project and we worked really hard, and it actually was a very lean team,” Bodge said. “In addition to five engineers, we had a lot of support from the rest of the companies and people who kind of toed in for a few days to hack on some stuff with us.”
The product’s release is possible in part due to the company’s new partnership with OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, that suddenly omnipresent, AI-driven chatbot. Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn was approached by OpenAI this past October, according to Bodge, and was impressed by a demonstration of its products at a time when Duolingo was already working on a project to connect tutors with students. von Ahn understands that artificial intelligence will be a significant part of the future and wants the company to be a part of that, Bodge said.
“This new model GPT-4 was going to be a really transformational technology for the entire industry,” Bodge said. “So he wanted us to make sure we got into that early, and that allowed us to be an early adopter release partner with OpenAI.”
What sets Duolingo Max apart from what users have seen from the company before, per the product manager, is that it immerses users in lessons by simulating real-world situations to practice languages and provides them feedback outlining exactly where they went wrong. This is due to the product’s AI-powered Explain My Answer and Roleplay features, which provide feedback and simulate situations for language learners to practice in.
“Imagine you’re learning French and you want to simulate what it’s like to go into a cafe in Paris, and actually have a conversation with a barista and trade over a cup of coffee,” Bodge said. “Previously, it was really hard for us to know where a learner might go. An old version of a chatbot, pre-GPT, might just have a decision tree asking, ‘Do you want a coffee?’ [or] ‘Do you want milk?’ This new model is almost like talking to a human being.”
Starting March 14, the product is rolling out to some Duolingo app users using on devices; the company also plans to offer it on Android products and the web. Ultimately, Duolingo believes that Duolingo Max is its latest step in providing products that help its users prepare for trips and learn new languages as well as any real-life instructor could.
“Duolingo Max allows us to take a really big step towards that vision of us being able to deliver a human tutor level of language quality and being able to scale it digitally,” Bodge said. “This puts us in a step towards our dream of replicating a digital human tutor as their language learning professor on Duolingo.”Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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