A new entry in translation technology research for military use: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded BBN Technologies ( of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a $5.67 million contract to produce a Multilingual Automatic Document Classification Analysis and Translation (MADCAT) prototype program capable of quickly converting to English everything from a crumpled, handwritten note in Arabic to computer files in Pashto using a PDA or a laptop.

Foreign language images come in the form of road signs, print media, captured documents, and graffiti, any one of which could be of immediate importance. The way it stands now, much of this material is either ignored or analyzed too late to be of any use, according to DARPA.

If and when it pans out, MADCAT is expected to provide “relevant, distilled, actionable information” to commanders and troops on the ground by translating foreign language text images accurately and automatically, according to the contract specifications. During the MADCAT proposal process DARPA demanded that bidders demonstrate a “revolutionary approach,” one that will produce a new benchmark in language translation. Specifically excluded were “minor evolutionary” improvements or “narrow applications” to current technology.

BBN says it plans to pull it off by integrating “optical character recognition with state-of-the-art translation and distillation techniques,” while developing “novel methods for processing handwritten text,” according to its press release. BBN also has built a handheld two-way translator, a shooter-detection system and other gear for the military. The company has contracts to develop a system to alert helicopter crews of small arms attacks and for development of a wireless adaptive communications network for DARPA.

See the full Crave article by Mark Rutherford; Boston Business Journal, BBN Technologies.

Note: IBM computer scientist Ismail Haritaoglu “built a prototype by attaching an off-the-shelf digital camera to a hand-held organizer with a cellphone plugged into it” probably in 2001, back before US cell phones commonly included cameras. Nokia introduced a prototype of a phone with “Shoot to Translate” and a “Point&Find” location identifier application in late 2007. While the demonstrations have typically focused on translation for signs in Chinese and Japanese, Shoot-toTranslate was described in an article as “one of the most interesting solutions for Middle East users.”

Maybe DARPA could check out the Nokia phones and redirect some of those millions to low-tech but useful language lessons?


Weekly Digest

Subscribe to stay updated