Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

AI was a factor for some of our layoffs, but not all: Duolingo

The popular language learning app recently laid off almost 10 percent of its contractor workforce, which news reports largely regarded as being replaced by artificial intelligence. However, the company tells Forbes India that that is one part of the story—and what its plans with AI are

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Apr 25, 2024 10:29:51 AM IST
Updated: Apr 25, 2024 11:04:52 AM IST

AI was a factor for some of our layoffs, but not all: DuolingoKlinton Bicknell, head of AI at Duolingo

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI), and more specifically, the generative kind, has spurred all sorts of fears about which jobs will now be made redundant. Two sectors that are likely to be disproportionately impacted are edtech and translation—and at their crossroads stands popular language learning app Duolingo.

Recently, Duolingo made headlines as it fired nearly 10 percent of its contractor workforce, reportedly because it was turning towards AI models. However, Duolingo tells Forbes India that this was just part of the story.

“While it's true that AI has enhanced our content creation process, its purpose is to augment, not replace, human expertise. We use AI to accelerate content production, scale courses and automate certain tasks, allowing our human experts to focus on more creative and strategic work. The recent adjustments are made to optimise operations and are not solely the result of employing AI,” a company statement sent to Forbes India said.

“There are several different reasons why we made this adjustment to our contractor workforce. In some cases, it was simply a matter of short-term projects reaching their conclusion. Another factor is how we’re prioritising course development in 2024, choosing to focus more on our larger language courses. We’re also shifting to a shared content model where more content is re-used between our 100+ courses, which requires fewer people. While AI was a factor in some of these contractor decisions, it’s inaccurate to attribute all of these changes to AI,” the statement added.

Klinton Bicknell, head of AI at Duolingo and Karandeep Singh Kapany, regional marketing director, Duolingo, also spoke about the company’s experiments with generative AI thus far, its impact on jobs, and what plans are in place for the Indian market. Edited excerpts:

Q. How do you think AI will impact jobs in translation and edtech, in the short term?
Klinton Bicknell:
We believe AI has the power to make language learning more immersive and personalised. Our goal is to get closer to the experience of learning with a human tutor—but one that’s always in your pocket.  

AI is a tool we’re using to accelerate our product development and make learning with Duolingo more engaging and effective. There are some jobs like translation work where AI is a powerful substitute. For example, coming up with all of the acceptable translations of a given sentence, when sometimes there are hundreds of possibilities, can be done faster by AI than a human. But while AI may replace or supplement certain jobs in the short-term, it’s also creating many new kinds of high-paying jobs, like those open on our AI research team.
 
Q. Duolingo has experimented with AI personas and real-life settings in the past year. What has the response to these been like? How is the language learning experience today versus a year ago?  
Klinton Bicknell:
The impact of AI on our language learning platform has been transformative. Through collaboration with OpenAI to integrate GPT-4, we introduced innovative features like 'Role Play' and 'Explain My Answer', significantly enhancing personalisation and the overall learning experience.

The feedback has been positive, evident in the active engagement of our community of millions of learners with these features. This shift in the learning paradigm moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more dynamic and personalised educational journey.

Also read: Tech layoffs in 2024 already: 32,500 and counting as AI takes precedence


Q. What would you say are the dangers of AI-related learning, in your experience? How does Duolingo tackle those challenges?
Bicknell:
In AI-related learning, potential challenges include over-reliance on automation and a lack of human touch. At Duolingo, we address this with our course creation process that combines human expertise with AI. In our curriculum design, human experts strategically plan the course structure in terms of what we teach and when we introduce new vocabulary and grammatical concepts. The collaboration continues in raw content creation, where human creativity is complemented by AI tools for efficiency. AI algorithms play a vital role in exercise creation, grading and lesson personalisation, offering scalability. However, human input remains integral, especially in creating exercises that require nuanced understanding. This collaboration between human insight and AI capabilities at each stage ensures users a comprehensive, effective and engaging learning experience.

Q. Where does India stand for Duolingo's global strategy? Any plans to expand to Indian languages?
Singh Kapany:
India stands as a pivotal player in Duolingo's global strategy, emerging as one of our largest markets with a robust community of daily active users. Recognising India's significant role in language learning, particularly as the second-largest market for education app downloads after China, we are dedicated to democratising language education for the diverse Indian audience.

Despite India having a significant population of English speakers, with 129 million across all states, less than 10 percent of the total population is proficient in English. This underscores the vast demand for English learning resources—a gap we’re actively trying to address. For instance, we launched courses tailored for Indian users, starting with Hindi to English, followed by Bengali to English. In August 2023, we further enriched our offerings by introducing a Telugu-to-English course.

India's linguistic diversity presents a significant opportunity, and as part of our strategic vision for India, we have exciting plans to expand our language offerings, including more Indian languages on the platform.