Information Warfare: April 12, 2004

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Late last year, American troops began using a computer program that translates Arabic documents into understandable English. This is a major achievement, and it has already led to the capture of several wanted Iraqis, and played a role in the capture of Saddam Hussein himself. This kind of software is called "machine translation," and it has been around for several decades. You can use free versions of it on the Internet to translate web pages or documents in other languages. The translation isn't perfect, but most of the time you can figure out what is being said. Arabic, however, is quite different from the existing machine language programs, which deal mainly with Indo-European languages. Moreover, Arabic has a lot more variation in the way things are written than is found in Indo-European and East Asian (China, Japan, Korea) languages. Moreover, the Arab world represents such a tiny part of the world economy that there is no financial incentive to create machine-translation software for it. But after September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense realized that whatever work was being done on machine-translation of Arabic ought to be given a financial boost (and pep talk) to get something usable to the troops.

This is because it was understood that a major problem for troops in Afghanistan, and the War on Terror (which would involve a lot Arab speaking bad guys) would be the language difference. While you can hire locals as interpreters (and have to fire a few of them for working for the other side), there  turned out to be another problem in Iraq. While the Iraqis may not have been outstanding soldiers, they were world class when it came to creating documents. Tons, literally, of military and government documents were captured last year, and more turns up daily. Iraq, one of the places (China and Egypt being the others) where mankind created literacy, has never lost its fondness for writing things down. Unfortunately, nearly all the documents are in Arabic. Getting documents translated, or read by coalition intelligence experts, takes too long. The sheer volume of the documents is daunting, and the new documents that show up each day from raids, or friendly Iraqis turning them in, often contain information that, if translated quickly, could save lives.

The Language Weaver Corporation (founded in January 2002), took academic research on dealing with the complex task of Arabic machine translation and got the software to the troops in late 2003. The software runs on a server and works with any Windows based system (either a server or an individual PC), and gets more accurate (as it accumulates more examples of correct translation of words and phrases) the more your use it. Thus the server based systems have the most accurate databases for doing more accurate translations. You have to scan documents, and that makes the translation even rougher because scanned documents often contain scanning (visual) errors. But in most cases, the translation is good enough for military purposes. And if it isn't, and seems important enough, there are still Department of Defense human translators available to go over it the old fashioned way. 

And then there's Phraselator, 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 a lifesaver in Afghanistan and Iraq. The data is contained on 64 megabyte Compact Flash memory cards. So once you have a Phraselator, just plug in the right memory card and you are ready to communicate in one of over 50 languages. Each memory card contains 500-1,000 phrases. At 23 ounces, the Phraselator is heavy, and you'll run through a lot of batteries if you use it a lot. 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. Actually, the memory cards contain phrases that fit particular situations, and can deal with multiple languages. For example, there is a Force Protection (FP) and Medic module in versions that handle languages like Korean, Dari (Eastern Farsi), Pashtu, Arabic (Gulf) and Urdu. There's a Maritime Intercept Operations (MIO) module, 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 module 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 modules. 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 manufacturer is in the process of bringing out Phraselator P2, which is lighter, has better battery life and so on. 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 several thousand Phraselators 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. 

 


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