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IraqComm computer cracks language barriers

SRI International is delivering the IraqComm device to U.S. military personnel in Iraq. This new system has a vocabulary of 40,000 English words and 50,000 Iraqi Arabic words. So far, 32 units of this two-way translation system have been shipped to the field. But it will take 10 years before such systems can be of practical use for the rest of us.

Four years after the Phraselator, which was designed to recognize a thousand of English phrases, a team of computer scientists from SRI International is delivering the IraqComm device to U.S. military personnel in Iraq. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, this new system has a vocabulary of 40,000 English words and 50,000 Iraqi Arabic words. So far, 32 units of this two-way translation system have been shipped to the field. But it will still take 10 years before two-way speech translation can be of practical use for the rest of us. Read more...

I haven't found a single picture of this new IraqComm computer developed at the Speech Technology and Research (STAR) Laboratory of SRI International. But below is a picture of the Phraselator P2 which is used by armed forces but also by various police departments (Credit: Phraselator image gallery at VoxTec International, Inc.).

The Phraselator P2

Tom Abate, from the San Francisco Chronicle, used the IraqComm device and you can hear the result in this Tech Talk audio file (MP3 format, 6'59", 5.91 MB). The first three minutes of this audio report demonstrate "how the computer translates English into the Iraqi dialect of Arabic."

Here is how Abate describes the recent demonstration he recently attended at SRI headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

The system is a far cry from the universal translator of the "Star Trek" television series. It isn't designed to handle subtle or wide-ranging discussions. So human translators -- including 9,000 small U.S. companies that are projected to do $5.7 billion in business in 2007 -- don't have to worry about being cut out of the conversation just yet.
Instead, IraqComm's vocabulary of 40,000 words in English and 50,000 in Iraqi Arabic is designed to enable soldiers or medics to converse with civilians in a limited range of settings such as military checkpoints, door-to-door searches or first-aid situations.

Obviously, the two-way translation ability of IraqComm -- even if not perfect -- still represents a big advance, as recognizes "Dagmar Dolatschko, president of Peritus Precision Translations Inc., a San Carlos firm that does print and voice translation."

"You cannot beat the power of the human brain for many years to come," she said. But Dolatschko said the basic technology of two-way translation for a limited range of topics would probably perform well in places like urban hospitals that are likely to encounter many non-English-speaking patients.

And even a SRI executive added that "it could be five to 10 years before two-way machine translation can be put to practical use."

Sources: Tom Abate, San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 2006; and various web sites

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