DARPA spends $13 million more for fast language translation software

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BBN Technologies this week got  $13 million in additional funding by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for its system that quickly converts documents in foreign languages into English so that military personnel can react more rapidly to threats.

DARPA in December awarded BBN Technologies a $5.6 million contract to develop an automated translation system for handheld, laptop or desktop computers.And last January DARPA awarded BBN a $16 million contract extension of its Global Autonomous Language Exploitation (GALE) program. GALE is intended to develop and apply software technologies to transcribe speech, translate both speech and text, and distill large volumes of speech and text in multiple languages, with over 90% accuracy by the end of the program. Such a capability would help U.S. analysts recognize critical information in foreign languages quickly so they could act on it in a timely fashion.

With this latest contract award, BBN will continue to work in Arabic from both speech and text sources to meet increasingly steep accuracy goals, BBN said.For DARPA the goal is to build a prototype system that quickly provides relevant, distilled, actionable information to military commands and personnel by converting foreign language text images into English transcripts automatically (without the use of linguists and analysts) and with high accuracy, the agency said in a release.  

The BBN system will support multiple printed or handwritten document types including, hard copy, PDF files, photographs, newsprint, and signs. With the system, BBN will integrate optical character recognition and  its state-of-the-art translation and distillation techniques to develop novel methods for processing handwritten text, BBN said. 

The system will enable English-speaking military personnel and analysts to extract valuable information from a much larger number of foreign language documents than is now possible, facilitate rapid responses to emerging threats. 

This isn’t DARPA’s first foray into language translation technology.  It funded  VoxTec’s Phraselator, a PDA-like device was developed for use in Afghanistan and Iraq by American soldiers for communicating with locals who spoke Farsi, Dari, Pashto and other languages. But for military purposes current language translation support is lacking. “Language skill and regional expertise have not been regarded as warfighting skills, and are not sufficiently incorporated into operational or contingency planning," the Pentagon's "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap" notes.

Only now is the Pentagon even starting to discuss the idea of requiring junior officers to learn another language. The technological solutions to the problem haven't helped much, so far. The hand-held Phraselator and Interact systems are cool, letting American G.I.s say simple phrases into PDAs, which then spit out their Arabic equivalents.

The devices really only work, however, for the most monosyllabic of conversations. U.S. Central Command analysts produce intelligence reports using DARPA’s eTAP-Arabic system, "which combines automatic transcription and automatic translation to convert Arabic newswire and news broadcasts to English text," according to DARPA. But the system just isn't that robust.    

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