It’s 2020. A US soldier sits down with a village sheikh, with an unusual robot in tow. The sheikh greets him courteously, respectfully, in flowing Arabic. At the appropriate time, the robot offers the same speech in English. The soldier nods, speaks, and gives a command, whereupon the robot offers dependable translation that’s even customized to the local dialect. Offshore, an intelligence analyst sorts through a combination of intercepted emails, recorded cell phone conversations, and document archives, looking for patterns and connections. She’s not fluent in Arabic, but the same technology used by the soldier is providing usable translations for her searches – asking her questions as needed, and helped by embedded clarifications and tags.
Thanks to a 2003 DARPA program, The world got to know Siri, the show-stealing component of Apple’s iPhone 4S. DARPA’s 2011 BOLT program aims to take the next step, from a silicon intermediary between man and machine to an intermediary between people. Even as it also provides a powerful back-end translation system for traditional intelligence tasks. It’s one of a family of ongoing translation research efforts, all aiming to solve a persistent and expensive problem for the US military.