Using TransTalk for interviews in foreign languages

You come upon a scene at which you ascertain — in part, from the two DBs on the pavement — that some sort of crime has been committed. This conclusion is further fortified by the screaming people all around the place, leading you to decide that at least a few of the folks present may have some information which could be useful in your initial investigation. Trouble is, there are at least three languages being spoken — none of them English and none of them a language for which you have a translator handy.

A mobile telephone technology from Raytheon called BBN TransTalk could be the perfect solution for the problem.

Put in the simplest terms, TransTalk enables the rapid exchange of information across a language barrier — you speak into the device the question you want the subject to answer, the computer instantly translates that into the subject’s native language, and asks it in an audio format. The subject then replies back into the device his/her answer, and it is automatically translated back into English for you to hear. There’s a lot more, but I’ll get to that a little further into this column.

Global War on Terror
With Iraqi Arabic, Pashto, Dari, and Farsi atop the list of languages now supported by the technology offering, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this technology has been in use by our armed forces fighting the war against global terrorism. Called the TransTalk Project, a five-year program conducted by DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the software was originally run on ruggedized laptops like Panasonic Toughbooks and then on Ultra-Portable type laptops such as the Panasonic U1 UMPC. The technology is now available on Android phones.

During my visit to the Raytheon Regional Technology Center (RTC) in Downey (Calif.) yesterday, I visited with Aaron Challenner and Ubaid Tokhi of Raytheon to get a little information about how this technology can be applied to the law enforcement marketplace.

“This has been targeted to the military for the past five years, and for the transition over to the police domain we can tweak the models a little if we need to. It seems to transition very well into that domain, particularly if you need to interview a pool of witnesses when no translator is available,” Challenner said.

What’s really exciting from the law enforcement perspective is that the entire conversation is recorded and stored on the device, and a complete written transcript is also created. Furthermore, a GPS tag of the precise location where the conversation took place is also added to the file created on the device. Finally, you can also use the device to take a photograph that can be added to the file, so you have an image of a wound left of a victim, for example, or another piece of evidence.

Self-Contained Technology
You’ve almost certainly seen someone using Siri, the whiz-bang voice-recognition technology available on the new Apple iPhone S. If so, you’ve got a very basic picture of the user interface and user experience, but there are a variety of very important differences. For starters, as is noted in this excellent explanation of Siri on super-geek website ZDNet, once the phone’s resident voice-recognition program captures the sound of your voice, “the signal from your connected phone [is] relayed wirelessly through a nearby cell tower and through a series of land lines back to your Internet Service Provider where it then communicated with a server in the cloud, loaded with a series of models honed to comprehend language.”

TransTalk is completely contained on the Android phone (or laptop, or UMPC), so there is no network connectivity necessary for this to work. It runs on a mobile communications device, but is, quite interestingly, not reliant upon the communications infrastructure. This is vital for the military application, but also an important factor for public safety in the case of a large-scale disaster such as a terrorist attack or natural catastrophe. When that sort of event happens, the wireless networks likely will be overloaded to the point of uselessness, or out-of-service altogether.

Innovation from Imagination
I saw a lot of really amazing stuff at the Raytheon event yesterday, and I’m deeply grateful for the VIP tour given to me by Mike Bostic, a 34-year veteran of LAPD (retired) who was able to put into context all these technologies as they could conceivable apply to police officers out there.

That said, as Challenner and Tokhi did a brief demonstration of the TransTalk technology, I wondered if the company envisions a product path for the fire service and/or EMS market — the technology would be perfect if a first responder needed to ask a non-English-speaking victim what their symptoms or injuries are, for example. This may be getting way ahead of where the company wants to be, and there may be HIPPA-related issues around the transcription and recording of the conversation, but the application is certainly one which tickles the imagination.

I guess that’s sort of the key to the ethos behind the gleaming-new Raytheon Regional Technology Center (RTC). If you can imagine it, the folks at Raytheon can work with you to innovate it.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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