Support: Free Computers that Hear and Speak Arabic


April 11, 2007: IBM made s splash recently when they donated $45 million worth of their MASTOR Arab/English translation software to the U.S. military. The Department of Defense was already evaluating the software, with about 30 systems operating in Iraq. The donation was prompted partly by the knowledge that nearly 200 IBM employees, plus many more sons and daughters of employees, have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. But IBM was also aware that MASTOR worked, and that another 10,000 copies of the software (including a thousand laptops to run it on) would speed up the Department of Defense decision to get more of it into the hands of the troops. 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 "train" 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 already 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.

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.


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