Fast language translation software for laptops, hand-held devices on tap from BBN

Looking to create a system that quickly converts documents in foreign languages into English so that military personnel can react more rapidly to threats,  DARPA today awarded BBN Technologies a $5.6 million contract to develop an automated translation system for handheld, laptop or desktop computers.

The goal of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Automatic Document Classification, Analysis and Translation (Madcat) program 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.  . The contract includes options  that could bring the total value to nearly $30 million. 

This isn’t BBN’s first foray into the world of translation for DARPA.  In January DARPA awarded BBN a $16 million contract extension of its Global Autonomous Language Exploitation (GALE) program. The goal of GALE is 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. 

Earlier this year IBM donated 10,000 copies of its speech-translation software and 1,000 laptops to run the software to the U.S. government for use in humanitarian settings in Iraq. Specifically, IBM will provide 1,000 two-way automatic translation devices and 10,000 copies of the software for future use.

The systems can recognize and translate a vocabulary of over 50,000 English and 100,000 Iraqi Arabic words, and are designed for civil application environments such as hospitals and training.  The IBM systems are advanced, two-way "speech-to-speech" translators – code-named MASTOR (for Multilingual Automatic Speech Translator) – that improve communication between English and Iraqi Arabic speakers. The lack of understanding of Iraqi Arabic is a major concern among military personnel, their families, and civilians in Iraq. The issue was recently addressed in the Iraqi Study Group report, which highlighted the importance of better communication and recommended this issue be given the highest possible priority. According to the report, of 1,000 U.S. Embassy workers, only 33 are Arabic speakers, and only six are at the level of fluency. Another concern is the safety of those providing translation services and protecting translators in conflict settings.  There are fewer than 20 commercial translation systems available globally. Yet the need for cross-language communication has never been more urgent.

A secondary goal of IBM’s contribution is to encourage other private sector organizations to speed their translation development and deployment, advance collaboration among this community of innovators, and prompt additional companies to extend their resources for similar humanitarian missions.   

The military isn’t the only one facing pressure to successfully translate languages.  Businesses are facing greater pressure than ever before to market their brands globally, but cultural and language differences are proving to be thorny barriers, particularly when companies sell products on the Web to a foreign audience, Forrester researchers said a recent study.  “More than half of global firms don’t feel that their company’s online customer experience is supported consistently in languages across the world,” Forrester states. “Even fewer transitioning companies (27%) believe that their firm’s online customer experience is consistent for different linguistic and cultural groups.” 

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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