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This startup is using the tech behind AI chat to create a ‘universal translator’ and simplify research

Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow, Startup Monday is a weekly column that highlights Arlington-based startups, founders, and local tech news. Monday Properties is proudly featuring 1515 Wilson Blvd in Rosslyn. 

(Updated 4:55 p.m.) Late last year, an AI writing tool captivated public attention for its ability to write the way a human might.

And while some used it for fun — ARLnow asked it to write fanfiction about Arlington and a poem about a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn — one tech company in Arlington says the Natural Language Processing (NLP) powering that developing technology has more serious applications.

That is Ballston-based Black Cape. Founded in 2019 to provide data analytics and machine learning solutions to national security and finance, Black Cape conducts most of its business today with the government on national security-related missions.

Its Co-CEO Abe Usher says in the last two years, “there has been an explosion in high-quality [NLP] for text analysis” — a development Black Cape is putting to use.

Black Cape logo (courtesy photo)

The company’s foreign language translation capabilities make it possible to translate English text to more than 100 other languages and back again over a chat tool.

“Consider the case of two people with different primary languages (English, Spanish) chatting with each other while their communications are seamlessly and automatically converted to the other person’s language in real-time,” Usher said. “It’s kind of like the old ‘Star Trek Universal Translator’ but modernized to work within a chat application.”

Natural language processing can also help customers who use Black Cape’s Rubicon tool to categorize and tag text automatically, using a technology called “topic models.”

“Our topic models can automatically sort news articles, social media and documents into thematic categories much like the way Google News works,” he said. “This allows us to create automatically generated collections of text documents with labels (‘world events,’ ‘climate change,’ ‘natural disaster,’ ‘infectious disease,’ etc.) that assist users in finding the information they are looking for.”

Usher says his company has also found applications for the developing technology known as “computer vision,” or a computer’s ability to read pictures or PDFs of old written documents for the text they contain.

“These computer vision models help with a range of image-related tasks, including automatically detecting textual information in images or PDF documents,” he said, adding that this “can help make legacy documents and images searchable based on the text contained within them.”

This year, he expects these two technologies will keep developing.

“In 2023, we anticipate increased technical innovation at the intersection of computer vision and natural language processing AI,” he said. “We also see an increased demand for AI-related services, including data engineering, feature engineering, machine learning model creation and refinement and machine learning operations.”

Pursuing applications for these technological advancements, Black Cape — which is privately funded and has been profitable since 2019 — has grown quickly. In 2022, the Washington Business Journal and Arlington County both recognized it as one of the fastest-growing companies regionally and within Arlington. 

WBJ also said Black Cape was a great place to work in the D.C. area.

He credits these recognitions to his team of 125 people who are enthusiastic about modernizing data analytics and who desire to contribute to technology that can improve the government and society. They hail from internet companies like Google and Microsoft, financial services like Capital One, commercial mapping companies and various military branches.

“We are lucky to have put together an exceptional team that is firing on all cylinders — technical excellence supporting external customers, deliberate support for internal professional development, competitive pay and benefits, well managed internal business operations and most importantly, a team spirit that makes day-to-day work fun — most of the time,” he said.

Most Black Cape employees are concentrated around the company’s headquarters in Ballston (4075 Wilson Blvd) and its secondary office in Austin, Texas, with some teammates working remotely from across the U.S.

But Usher likes Arlington because it is close to good schools, the federal government and attracts talented tech workers.

“This combination of tech skill, highly educated workforce, and proximity to government really makes Arlington an exciting place to work and live,” he said.

This year, he says Black Cape is focused on hiring more software engineers and data scientists. He encouraged interested engineers and data scientists to learn more online and start the application process by emailing the company at [email protected].

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