Electronic Weapons: Talk To The Machine


February 22, 2008: One of the unsung electronic heroes of the war on terror is the Phraselator. This is a (large) PDA size device that emits perfectly pronounced words and phrases when the user picks them from a list on the PDA screen, or speaks the English version into a microphone.

Phraselator has been around for a decade, and has been a lifesaver in Afghanistan and Iraq. The first models stored  data on 64 megabyte Compact Flash memory cards. With those early versions, you plugged in the right memory card and you are ready to communicate in one of over 50 languages. Each memory card contained 500-1,000 phrases.

Since then, memory card capacity grew to hold a thousand times as much data, enabling all the languages to be stored in each $2,500 Phraselator.  Weighing about a pound, the Phraselator is heavy, but the battery will last over a week without a recharge. The voice recognition is pretty good if you speak clearly, and does not require any preparation by the user (like reciting a bunch of phrases so the computer can "recognize" your voice.) The phrases in the Phraselator mostly ask questions, which can be answered by yes/no, pointing somewhere, or doing something specific (as in, "put your hands up.") Civil Affairs troops like it, because they deal with people in a relaxed atmosphere where an American with yet another gadget will not produce more anxiety. Medical personnel also find Phraselator very useful.

There are special vocabulary sets in the Phraselator, like Force Protection (FP) and Medic, which make available appropriate terms in many languages like Korean, Dari (Eastern Farsi), Pashtu, Arabic (Gulf) and Urdu. There's a Maritime Intercept Operations (MIO) mode, which was developed for use in boarding operations in the Arabian Gulf. There are over 400 phrases in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Hindi. There's a Debriefing Aid mode that has some 5,000 intelligence debriefing phrases and words rendered in Persian-Farsi, Singhalese, Haitian-Creole, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Cambodian, Spanish, French, Korean, and Arabic (Egyptian). There are several different medical modes. The one watt speaker on the Phraselator can be easily heard, and the unit can be plugged into a public address system as well.

The first Phraselator appeared in 1998, but the true "Phraselator" didn't appear until early 2002, when they were first used in Afghanistan. The Department of Defense has bought nearly ten thousand so far, and the troops agree that it sure beats sign language or thumbing through a phrase book. The locals like it because it's yet another neat American gadget, and one that won't kill them as well.

The next generation of Phraselator will enable true two-way communication. This technology is already available, but needs a laptop computer, with a big hard drive and a fast CPU. This kind of hardware will be available in PDAs in the next few years, which will make the two way Phraselator possible. Currently, about 7,000 military Phraselators are in use, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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