Computer aids French killer hunt

August 23, 1996

The world's most advanced translating computer, designed by scientists at Cambridge and Edinburgh, has been hired to speed up the police investigation into the rape and murder of Cornish schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson in a French youth hostel.

Nearly a month after Ms Dickinson was suffocated while on a school trip to Brittany, the French police have still not found the killer. Devon and Cornwall police, who are pursuing their own inquiry, hope that Linguanet, the Pounds 2 million computer which translates French into English and vice versa, will increase the flow of information across the Channel.

It takes seconds for Linguanet to translate standard police information: situation reports, person descriptions, vehicle portraits and fraud profiles. These are then presented in a reliable and readable format, encrypted so they cannot be intercepted, and transformed into audio format so they can be relayed to police officers working at the scene of the crime.

Linguanet - which is intended to facilitate communication between accident and emergency services - came about almost by accident. Invented by Cambridge academic Edward Johnson and his Edinburgh associate David Matthews, it has its roots in a Channel Tunnel project to improve communication between the French and British police. But it was under used. As Mr Johnson, a research fellow in operational communication at Wolfson College, said: "There were not many international disasters, and so the computers sat around gathering dust."

To give the project a new lease of life, Mr Johnson and his team of linguists, programmers and communication scientists at the Cambridge spin-off company Prolingua Ltd adapted the computer for general police use and installed machines in Calais and Dover. Now, 15 police forces, in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, use Linguanet.

Around 250 years after an earlier Johnson decoded the English language in his famous Dictionary, Edward Johnson thinks Linguanet is the future for European communication. It has won the backing of a consortium involving British Telecom and Dutch technology firm Philips, and there are plans to provide Europe's 100 police forces with Linguanet computers for all 18 official languages. That would be an enormous help to Interpol as it tackles the increased rate of cross-border crime and recognises that oil slicks and other environmental disasters do not respect national frontiers.

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