IBM speech translation boosts US forces in Iraq

The U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) is set to deploy IBM Corps speech-to-speech translation software to help U.S. forces serving in Iraq better communicate with local security forces and Iraqi citizens.

The USJFCOM acts as the “transformation laboratory” of the U.S. military developing and testing out new capabilities and then recommending their use to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

The unit is turning to IBM and other companies for technology to translate natural speech in real-time to make up for a lack of military linguists proficient in Iraqi Arabic.

IBM announced that the USJFCOM will deploy IBM Research’s Multilingual Automatic Speech-to-Speech Translator system, also known as Mastor.

Mastor combines work on automatic speech recognition, natural language understanding and speech synthesis underway at IBM since 2001, said David Nahamoo, chief technology officer, human language technology at IBM Research.

Over the last few years, IBM has also worked closely on Mastor with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

When used in Iraq, Mastor will act as an automated bi-directional, English-to-Iraqi Arabic translator capable of translating more than 50,000 English words and 100,000 Iraqi Arabic words.

For example, a U.S. military trainer looking to work with an Iraqi policeman could speak English into a microphone hooked up to the Mastor system running on a laptop. The IBM technology would recognize his English speech, translate it into Iraqi Arabic and then vocalize that translation for the Iraqi policeman to hear and vice versa.

Mastor’s graphical user interface displays both the original and translated phrase. It also includes what IBM calls a “back translation” of the individual words the system translated, to provide an additional level of confidence to the original speaker.

Initially, IBM will deliver 35 ruggedized Panasonic Toughbook laptops loaded with the
Mastor software to USJFCOM in Iraq later this month.

“The system is designed for a benign environment,” Wayne Richards, deputy branch chief, USJFCOM capabilities division, wrote in an e-mail interview. “Its recommended uses are hospitals, training of Iraqi police and military forces in classrooms and in secure training areas on force protection and civil affairs operations.”

The USJFCOM had input into the English and Iraqi Arabic words Mastor has been taught to recognize, Richards added. The agency transcribed and translated conversations that reflected particular mission areas so it could capture specific words, terms and expressions for use in developing translation libraries leading to improvements in the accuracy in Mastor’s translation.

“The [Mastor] product is not ready for full deployment and is being put into the field in a controlled environment which will be assessed by the government; feedback will be provided to DARPA, who will use the analyses to increase the technical readiness of the system,” Richards wrote. DARPA will use the feedback to help guide IBM in further research and development efforts to improve Mastor.

IBM has previously worked on three other language versions of Mastor to varying extents — English-to-Mandarin Chinese, English-to-Modern Standard Arabic and English-to-Spanish — Nahamoo said.

The company’s keen to explore other avenues for the technology and already has a relationship in place with a commercial partner, Sharp Corp. The Japanese company is to introduce a Japanese-to-English translation personal digital assistant (PDA) later this year that is based on some of IBM’s technologies in Mastor, notably its speech recognition and its text-to-speech capabilities, Nahamoo said.

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