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[] Pentagon lässt Computer-Dolmetscher entwickeln,

Device: Arabic In, English Out  

By Erik Baard 

Story location:,1452,58150,00.html

02:00 AM Mar. 22, 2003 PT

Soldiers can't prevent the diplomatic misunderstandings that breed
warfare, but the Pentagon hopes a handheld electronic interpreter in
GIs' packs can prevent language barriers from claiming lives on the

To be successful, such a gadget has to go way beyond the electronic
phrase books and generic tourist directories available today. 

A new device being tested at the Office of Naval Research shows a lot of
promise, according to Joel Davis, a neurobiologist there. "We have good
ones now; they'll be better in a few years, and eventually fantastic,"
he said. 

Over the past several years, the Navy has pumped about $4 million into
Davis' program to develop simultaneous machine translation and
interpretation. On Friday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will see
a demonstration of the choice fruit of that effort, a blend of voice
recognition, speech synthesis and translation technologies called

"There are really a lot of competitors to this, and I've funded them,
but no one has come quite close to this," Davis said of Interact,
created by SpeechGear, a small startup in Northfield, Minnesota.
Interact lets someone talk into the device in one language -- then it
spits out an audio translation with just a two-second delay and no need
for the speaker to pause. 

After a demonstration for military brass last week and field tests in
December at Navy Central Command in Bahrain, "we had to pry our demo
model out of their hands," said Robert Palmquist, president and CEO of

Unfortunately, however, Palmquist said the new Iraq war came a year too
early for his product. In the current conflict, military personnel will
have to rely on human interpreters and weathered pocket dictionaries to
communicate with refugees, wounded civilians, prisoners and combatants. 

The secret to Interact is not that it's a brand-new technology, but
rather an amalgam of existing solutions. 

The hardware comes from any electronics store: a Linux or Windows XP
tablet PC with a microphone and speaker. When a user speaks into the
Interact system, a voice-recognition program generates text that is then
passed on to translation software. That program then bridges the two
languages, and a voice synthesizer "reads" the translation out loud. 

SpeechGear bundles Interact with a traditional electronic dictionary,
called "Interprete," but specialized vocabulary for the military,
hospitals, firefighters and others can also be added, as can personal
word lists. 

"SpeechGear doesn't care where the software comes from; they'll use
whatever translation engine or word recognition program they can find,"
Davis said. "The genius is to put that together in a seamless fashion." 

Palmquist agreed. "We love going out and finding stuff we can use," he
said. "Inevitably there are always portions we have to develop
ourselves, and that last 10 percent can be tough and very involved." 

Palmquist declined to identify the tools SpeechGear used to develop
Interact, not only for proprietary reasons, but also "because it's
always changing. If we find a better component on the market, we'll
integrate that and drop the old one. We tell our clients that." 

And there is always room for improvement. 

"For this to work, you need two people with a desire to communicate. A
recalcitrant interviewee can screw things up," Davis said. 

The system mangles grammar at times and would also stumble over the
contents of a wiretap, Palmquist said, because it would be confused by
idioms and slang. "You really have to stick to a neutral way of
speaking," he said. 

Users must also hold the unit at close proximity, and the mortar blasts
and machine gun rattle of the battlefield can interfere. 

SpeechGear plans to sell a consumer version in a year, Palmquist said. 

Eventually, he said, customers will be able to dial up from a cell phone
to a service that will interpret for you at, say, a local market in Peru
or on a conference call with speakers of several languages. People
toting camera/cell-phone combos can snap a quick pic of a Chinese menu
-- in China -- and get a quick translation into their native tongue
thanks to SpeechGear's "Camara" system. 

Interact, Interprete and Camara are marketed as a package by SpeechGear
under the name Compadre Language Technologies. 

A good part of the heavy lifting to make speech-to-speech machine
translation a reality will be done in university labs supported by the
Pentagon, National Science Foundation, European Union and Japan. 

"The hottest areas of research right now are being able to port rapidly
to new languages and getting these things to run well on very small
devices like PDAs," said Robert Frederking, senior systems scientist at
Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute. His group
tested a system called Tongues in Croatia in 2001. 

"We have in fact built experimental systems on both laptops and high-end
PDAs," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "There are many issues; it's
still quite hard to do. Limited memory size, the quality of the
soundboards and the lack of real-number arithmetic on some PDAs are,
(for) example, difficult issues." 

Diana Liao, chief of the United Nations interpretation service, said she
won't put her faith in machine translators anytime soon. 

"We always rely on the human solution. The human voice is very difficult
to work with. In diplomacy you have to get the nuance in your language
and pay attention to inflection and even body language," she said. 

But skilled interpreters are always in short supply. Liao's division has
started trials using remote interpretation -- routing conversations
through an interpreter at another location by telephone or
videoconferencing -- but she cites problems with equipment and time
differences in that approach as well. 

"These meetings are usually set up way ahead of time, and sometimes it
might even be more expensive than to just send a person over."

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