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Friday, July 21, 2006

Pentagon Puts its Money on Electronic Interpretation

The U.S. Army is presently testing the prototype of an electronic interpreter in Iraq and financing major automatic translation programs.

Since earlier this month around 30 IraqComm systems developed by SRI International are being put through their paces by American units tasked with training Iraqi police and military personnel. Based on the principle of instantaneous �speech to speech,� IraqComm is designed to allow two people of different languages to converse in real-time. Functioning on a portable computer and tablet PC, it is a successor to a PDA version named Phraselator developed by Voxtec and SRI. Tested initially in Afghanistan, Phraselator didn�t work all that well as its PDA interface put off some users. Version 2 of Phraselator functions in no less than 40 rare languages (Somali, Croat, Singhalais, Tamil, Cambodian and the like) and is used by some Marine and U.S. special forces units.

The systems are the fruit of a research program dubbed Transtac that was financed by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to the tune of $16 million in 2005 (see graph). The program, whose second phase covering the years 2006-2009 has just been launched, focuses on �speech to speech� translation systems in rare languages. DARPA also supervises a huge program, Global Autonomous Language Exploitation (GALE, worth roughly $49 million) conducted by three consortia headed by IBM, SRI International and BBN Technologies. It involves telephone conversations, newspapers, TV, radio and newsgroups and is aimed at translating huge masses of foreign language vocal and text data into English, structuring it and distributing it to intelligence agencies.

Elsewhere, DARPA is financing the design of an instantaneous translation tool for documents seized in military operations. The documents, often with hand-written comments, contain information that doesn�t always have a long shelf-life and thus requires immediate translation.

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