Logo: University of Southern California

Tactical Linguist Wins DARPA Distinction

DARPA Chief: "I can best summarize the system’s success by quoting one soldier’s words: 'I learned more in one day with this than I learned in my whole tour in Iraq '"

August 20, 2005 —
 W. Lewis Johnson, director of the Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education (CARTE) at USC’s Information Sciences Institute, is one of only two 2005 winners of DARPA "significant technical achievement" awards.

Johnson receives award from  DARPA Director Anthony J. Tether
Johnson, who is also a research associate professor in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering department of computer science, learned that he won the prize at the 24th DARPA Systems and Technology Symposium meeting, held August 9-11 in Anaheim, California.
Johnson’s award was for his leadership of the Tactical Language Training System project, which creates videogames that teach the basics of foreign language and cultural customs."The U.S. Army and Marine Corps adopted this system and are using it today to prepare troops for duty in Iraq," said DARPA director Dr. Anthony J. Tether. "I can best summarize the system’s success by quoting one soldier’s words: 'I learned more in one day with this than I learned in my whole tour in Iraq,'" adding he believes that the system will save lives.

"I agree with Dr. Tether's assessment," said Dr. Ralph Chatham, the DARPA program manager for Tactical Iraqi. "We may never know whose lives it saves, but we can be confident it will save many."

News media, including The New York Times, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," and Newsweek have reported CARTE's work on "Tactical Iraqi."

Tactical Iraqi, like the other Tactical Language games, is built on top of a commercial engine called "Unreal Tournament." The engine provides basic code to allow players to manipulate characters in a geographical environment.

For the Tactical Language games, rather than engaging in traditional videogame combat, players must converse with game characters in a foreign language, using appropriate gestures as well.

Artificial intelligence allows the game characters the player encounters to understand what the player says in the language (if it is prounounced intelligibly) and to respond appropriately.

Screen capture from Tactical Iraqi: "We may never  know whose lives it will save, but we  can be confident it will save many."

Another segment of the game offers tailored, language-laboratory-like instruction in language — instruction that players then use in the gameplaying "mission" elements.

The system now runs on high-performance laptop computers, but CARTE hopes eventually to make the game accessible to basic, entry-level machines, and commercial hardware like the X-Box or Playstation systems.

Johnson and other USC partners have formed a spinoff company, Tactical Language Training, LLC, which is providing training, support, and content development for Tactical Iraqi and parallel systems that teach other languages.

Johnson is both a linguist and a computer scientist, with an A.B. degree in the former from Princeton and a PhD in the latter from Yale. He is secretary and past president of the Artificial Intelligence in Education Society, associate editor of the journal Automated Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems, was program co-chair First International Joint Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems, and program co-chair of the 2003 Intelligent User Interfaces conference.

An accomplished baritone, Johnson has had numerous concert appearances, including dates with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera.