Intelligence: Talk to the Hand

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August 7, 2007: A fundamental requirement for collecting intelligence is the ability to understand what the other guy is saying. Thus American marines and Arabic speaking civilians are testing a portable language translator, that allows two way conversations to be instantly translated, under combat conditions.

This sort of thing has been a long time coming. The U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to develop easy-to-use computer based language translators for decades. Until September 11, 2001, the main thrust was for devices that could be used to translate the enormous quantities of foreign language stuff that American intel agencies acquire daily. Much progress has been made.

Last year year, IBM sent dozens of MASTOR Arab/English translation software systems to Iraq. IBM is also developing a MASTOR system that handles Chinese/English. The U.S. government is expected to be one of the largest customers for this, especially intelligence agencies.

MASTOR (Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator), is translation software that does not, as in the past, require the user to speak a long list of words and phrases into a microphone, to the software to fully understand your particular voice. The latest software (which has been shipping for over a year now) understands anyone (well, almost anyone) immediately. The software can be used in most laptops, all you need is a good microphone.

Language translation devices have been available since the beginning of the Iraq war. Most were hand-held PDA system that held a bunch of commonly used phrases. The user selected the English language version, and the PDA would speak it out loud in, say, Arabic. It was crude, but it was useful, and the troops liked it. However, a human translator was much preferred, as you could only do so much with a list of words and phrases. MASTOR is basically a robot (in the form of a laptop computer) translator. The English and Arabic person speaks to it, is understood, and has their speech translated. In addition to the synthetic speech, the conversation is also stored as text, which makes it even more useful for official business. The MASTOR translation is crude, but serviceable, compared to a human translator.

MASTOR is being used in Iraqi hospitals, and other places where American and Iraqis (and soon, Afghans) need to speak with each other. There are never enough translators to go around, and MASTOR takes up some of the slack. An ultra small laptop (or very powerful PDA) can also use MASTOR, and one is under development for troops in the field. This is similar to portable system currently being field tested.

MASTOR is the latest example of "machine translation". There have been major technology advances in this area in the past few years, which was very timely. Actually, the need for machine translation of Arabic (a very difficult language to translate via software) has brought more money to research in this area. But the overall improvements in machine translation has made it possible to extract potentially useful information from vast quantities of email and phone conversations, and turn them over to linguists for precise translation. As a result, Islamic terrorists cannot feel so secure chatting away in Arabic anymore.

For the troops, the goal is a PDA sized automatic translation device. You hold it up to an Arabic speaker, and after a second or two, the PDA speaks to you in English. The user talks to the Arabic speaker, holding the PDA close enough to hear the words, and the PDA quickly translates those words, out loud, into Arabic. This sort of device is expected to be available in a few years, at least for field testing.

 


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