Military works to bridge the language gap

IBM and Joint Forces Command test new translation software

In Iraq, warfighters interact with the Iraqi people every day. The battle for hearts and minds takes place primarily in Iraqi homes, hospitals and classrooms. But translators are scarce, and the language barrier looms large. So the Defense Department is teaming with industry and academia to push new technology into the communications gap.

This month, DOD will begin its second set of operational tests in Iraq of new language translation technology. The software, developed by IBM and deployed by the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), facilitates two-way conversations between speakers of English and Iraqi Arabic. Warfighters will test the software, called the Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator (Mastor), in medical situations, psychological operations and the training of Iraqi security forces.

“The first step to building trust is to be able to communicate,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Gary Ambrose, IBM’s vice president for the Defense Department. The shortage of qualified Arabic translators means that most must assist senior decision-makers at the strategic level, he said. That creates a need for a cheaper, widely replicable solution.

Warfighters use one-way translation devices, such as the Phraselator, at the tactical level. Such devices convert a limited number of phrases into fixed translations, allowing communication but not dialogue.

Mastor uses its dictionary of 50,000 English words and 100,000 Iraqi Arabic words to allow dynamic interactions, learning new dialects and words as it goes, Ambrose said. The program can run on any ruggedized laptop, and it will someday be available on personal digital assistants, he said.

“We want to get to a point where hardware is not even an issue,” said Wayne Richards, capabilities branch chief at JFCOM. The goal is to integrate the software into existing systems. “None of our soldiers need another widget to carry around,” he said.

JFCOM received an urgent request from regional commanders in Iraq for a two-way translation capability, Richards said. JFCOM queried the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and discovered its Translation System for Tactical Use (Transtac) program.

Transtac had been working on Mandarin Chinese capabilities but switched to Iraqi Arabic after contact from JFCOM, Richards said. DARPA chose three of its contracts for initial field testing. Those contracts were with IBM, SRI International, and Carnegie Mellon University.

In January, JFCOM deployed about 35 copies of SRI’s Iraqcomm program to help train Iraqi police officers and members of the armed forces. From now until March 2007, JFCOM will give 35 laptops with IBM’s Mastor program to members of the Army Medical Department, the Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps. The Mastor deployment builds on lessons learned from the January tests.

Mastor requires only 3G of disk space and can run on Microsoft Windows XP, Windows CE and Embedded Linux. The program has achieved 80 percent to 90 percent grammatical accuracy and has a real-time recognition rate of less than one second per sentence, according to IBM.

All tests so far have been performed in a sterile environment without excessive background noise, Richards said. Eventually, warfighters should be able to use the system in any situation, not just in ideal conditions, he said. However, that could take three more years, he added.

Although the cost of the software is not yet known, it is sure to be less than the $150,000 needed to send a single human translator to the region, Ambrose said.

Translation systems will open a whole new worldAlthough the military’s need for translation capabilities drives development, vendors are devising a post-war marketing strategy for the new technology, IBM executives said.

Opportunities abound for applying two-way translation technology in international settings, IBM executives said. “Speech-to-speech translation systems have the potential to revolutionize the way people around the world communicate with each other,” said Anne Altman, managing director of IBM’s U.S. Federal division.

IBM plans to market the Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator throughout the public and private sectors, including the aerospace, medical, law enforcement, banking and travel industries, company officials said.

“In five years, you’ll see this in every police car and emergency room in the world,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Gary Ambrose, IBM’s vice president for the Defense Department.

Mastor is available in Iraqi Arabic, standard Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. New language versions will be available soon, beginning with Spanish, Ambrose said.

— Josh Rogin


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