Tactical Linguist Wins DARPA Distinction

| August 15, 2005

W. Lewis Johnson’s award was for his leadership of the Tactical Language Training System project, video games that teach soldiers the basics of foreign language and cultural customs.

Lewis Johnson, left, with DARPA director Anthony J. Tether

W. Lewis Johnson, director of the Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education (CARTE) at USCs Information Sciences Institute, is one of only two 2005 winners of DARPA “significant technical achievement” awards.

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, videogames that teach soldiers 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 extensively 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 video game 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 pronounced intelligibly) and to respond appropriately.

Another segment of the game offers tailored, language- laboratory-like instruction in language – instruction that players then use in the “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 even to commercial gameplayers like X-Box or Playstations.

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.

Published on August 15th, 2005

Last updated on August 9th, 2021

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