US Looks for Magic Translation Device to Monitor Federal Prisoners

The “Machine Language Translations” system or device should be able to interpret and analyze all the elements from text or oral translations. It must have expertise in grammar, syntax, semantics in both source and target languages, as well as familiarity with each local geographic region of a speaker’s origin.

It should have the ability to update and add vocabulary as you go, transcribe all translations instantly, and enable the user to make notes and save additional information during use. Preferably, it can translate slang, colloquial phrases, and textspeak. Oh, and make sure it comes at a reasonable cost for enterprise-wide deployment and installation.

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The organization asking vendors to submit ideas for this magic device is not Starfleet Command but the US Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). On July 20, 2016, the BOP, a subdivision of the US Department of Justice, launched an RFI for “Machine Language Translations.”

This one...?

This one?

The BOP is the law enforcement agency in charge of the custody and execution of federal criminals charged with national-level offenses, which range from identify theft and drug trafficking to terrorism. It comprises 122 correctional institutions, one Central Office, 32 other related offices, and is tasked with overseeing close to 200,000 federal inmates.

Slator reached out to the BOP to learn more about the use case for this technology. A spokesperson for the BOP’s Office of Public Affairs responded that “per policy, BOP monitors communications of inmates to ensure that they are not further engaging in criminal activity. This monitoring covers both written and oral communications. For written communications via foreign languages, translation services are required.”

What triggered the launch of the RFI according to the spokesperson was that “human translation of inmate foreign-language communications (oral/written) is a significant logistical and financial challenge in the corrections environment, particularly due to the variety of languages and dialects being used.”

“BOP monitors communications of inmates to ensure that they are not further engaging in criminal activity”—Spokesperson for BOP’s Office of Public Affairs

In a nutshell, the BOP wants to automate the monitoring of all communications by inmates and is looking for a silver bullet to save on costs.

Just in case vendors get their hopes up for federal research dollars, the wording in the RFI makes it clear the BOP does “not fund technology research and is only interested in off-the-shelf solutions.”

If your magic device is not currently commercially available, but will be so within the next three months, feel free to respond to the RFI. Of course, you should “provide reference or operational use cases where it is actually functioning.”

...or this one?

or this one?

Vendors submitting their proposals must satisfy the BOP’s curiosity as to “how the machine language system, integrated system, device or software will work.”

Can the system or device “complete batch translations” and can “additional phrases be incorporated instantly”? What about “error rates”? Can vendors share results “confirmed by a third party”? What tests were “conducted to ensure the system is valid and reliable”? Crucially  for a prison environment, can “the system be upgraded as threats change or evolve”?

Do not try to sell something only techies know how to operate. The BOP wants to know “how sophisticated the solution is to operate for non-technical staff.” Are there features or components of the solution that could be removed or “turned off” to simplify operation?

And do not overpromise because “the BOP may schedule an onsite, follow-up demonstration at BOP headquarters.”

Finally, even if you think you will nail the RFI with your magic translation device, don’t get too excited. The BOP makes it perfectly clear that “the RFI does not commit the Government to contract for any supply or service whatsoever.”

We wanted to know from the BOP if they realized that, in 2016, there is no technology on the market that comes even close to fulfilling all the requirements set out in the RFI. Their response: “The RFI is intended to assess the state of the market and allow vendors to propose potential operational solutions.”

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Florian Faes

Co-Founder of Slator. Linguist, business developer, and mountain runner. Based in the beautiful lakeside city of Zurich, Switzerland.