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For battlefield translation, soldiers look to the cloud

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin debuts LinGO Link, a military field communications system that allows a soldier to conference in a local translator on the battlefield.

Language translation has been one of the most difficult challenges of the digital technology revolution.

It's unsurprising, really: language is a mushy, morphing, lawless standard that hardly conforms to the unmoving mathematical principles of computer algorithms. The weakest link? Humans.

Language translation is useful for many things, from customer service call centers to transcontinental business meetings, but one critical -- one could say life-dependent -- application is for military use in the field.

Simply, when everyone's got guns and no one can understand each other, the easiest way to defuse the situation (no pun intended) is to bring a translator in.

While the U.S. military does spend considerable funds training linguists for the battlefield -- as well as developing technology for universal translation (you can  see it in action here ) -- it might be best to keep those who communicate in words away from those who communicate in bullets.

Answer: head to the cloud.

Lockheed Martin announced on Wednesday that it is planning to deploy LinGO Link, a communications system that allows a soldier to effectively dial up a translator on demand.

But the system does not dial way back to Langley, Va. -- rather, it connects to a group of local interpreters positioned near the front lines. The requests are made using a special smartphone operating on a proprietary data network. It's effectively a three-way conference call in theater, not unlike how real-time translation works at United Nations Security Council meetings.

Here's how the defense contractor explains it in its own words:

The LinGo Link system uses an innovative service delivery model to connect the edge user to a bank of interpreters in a remote service center within the area of operations. The system can use either commercial cellular or Wi-Fi services, or a tactical communications network such as Lockheed Martin’s MONAX persistent tactical broadband capability. When support is needed, the user initiates a two-channel call to connect with a qualified interpreter. Outfitted with a Smartphone and LinGo Link’s mobile peripheral devices, users can exchange high-quality audio, video, photos, and text during conversations with interpreters. LinGo Link also enables the interpreter to provide “whisper-in-the-ear” cultural and intelligence support that goes beyond the words being spoken — offering clues to the community’s culture, security, economy, and laws — and enhancing the quality of the exchange.

The only problem: people are expensive, and while this looks to be cheaper than deploying translators alongside soldiers on the front lines, it's still quite a bit more dough than any automated technological solution. (How much, you ask? Try $679 million for one Ohio-based contractor's work in Afghanistan.)

Still, it's more secure than dialing all the way back to a U.S. military call center.

Can you hear me now?

Photo: U.S. Army/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com