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In Iraq, military seeking Universal Translator

In Iraq, soliders need to be able to speak with, and calm, the locals. Hopes are high for a technological solution but such a device remains a Star Trek illusion.
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Written by Richard Koman on

For the military in Iraq, being able to speak with the locals is a huge problem. In the absence of enough translators, there was high hopes for technological fixes to the problem. But, the Washington Post reports, the Star Trek Universal Translator is still a long ways off.

Two months after arriving in Iraq, a second lieutenant with the 16th Military Police Brigade was handed the Phraselator, a hand-held device that promised to digest his English phrases and produce a prerecorded Arabic translation with an Iraqi accent.

But after a brief test last year, the soldier gave up the gadget, deciding that, while helpful in some instances, it wasn't useful to his unit, which conducted raids and provided convoy security. He had even tried to teach himself Arabic using the device but decided that it was no match for the complex language. Even such simple phrases as "What is your name?" are spoken differently in Fallujah than in Baghdad, he found. "This may have been the reason why many of the Iraqis . . . did not appear to understand the Arabic phrases & words" stored in the device, according to a report prepared for the Army.

So elusive, and so necessary given the dire situation in the country, that the military is mounting a multimillion-dollar campaign to find technology that really an translate back and forth between English and Arabic.

The military has been pushing other devices into the field, far before they're ready. Integrated Wave Technologies has developed a hands-free version of a translation machine that supposedly allows soldiers to talk to the locals:

"You say 'house search' and then it will say in Arabic: 'We're here to search your house. Please stay in this room. Do you have any weapons?'" said Tim McCune, the company's president.

But, of course, soliders need to go more than give orders. They need to communicate.

Now the Pentagon has turned to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with a budget of $20.8 million this year for translation technologies.

DARPA was a natural fit to lead the project because it has spent the past two years creating a database of thousands of hours of Iraqi conversations to study the voices, speech patterns and commonly used phrases to help with speech-recognition software.

The agency selected SRI International, a nonprofit research group, International Business Machines Corp., and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to help put that database to work.

Each of the three has developed systems that use mathematical algorithms to interpret speech, even if it is slurred, accented or muffled, into Arabic and the Arabic response into English. After a second or two, a synthesized male voice produces a response. The systems usually require speakers to limit their conversations to one sentence at a time to avoid confusion.

So, ready for prime time? Far from it.

The technology is "just not ready for wide deployment," said Mari Maeda, program manager in DARPA's Information Processing Technology Office. "The translation system is not good enough; the recognition software is not strong enough."

The systems are also not accurate enough, she said. IBM estimates that its system has an accuracy rate of 85 to 90 percent, and that out of 30 phrases, a person may need to repeat four or five. SRI and Carnegie Mellon officials said they couldn't provide comparable figures. But "soldiers are looking for things that work 95 percent of the time," Maeda said.

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