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Translating machine has a way with words


It could be an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: The Phraselator.

But it's not. It's the name of a technology developed by two local companies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Using the Phraselator, military personnel utter a phrase into a weatherproof microphone, and the machine repeats it back in one of 40 languages, including languages spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan such as Pashto and Dari.

"Are you carrying a weapon?" Robert Olsen, president of Applied Data Systems Inc. in Columbia, asked the Phraselator during a recent demonstration at his office.

The machine replied by saying the phrase in Pashto.

Developed by Applied Data Systems and VoxTec, an Annapolis-based division of Marine Acoustics Inc., about 500 Phraselators have been built for military units around the world. Many of those units have gone to Afghanistan.

Another 250 Phraselators have been ordered for the military - though officials from both companies declined to say exactly where the devices would be used.

Olsen said those Phraselators would be fluent in Arabic.

"It's always been important to be able to say things, critical things, in the language of the countries in which U.S. forces are involved, whether it's war or peacekeeping," said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

The technology becomes more important, Goure said, when fighting unconventional wars, such as the war on terrorism.

"If you can simply say enough things to ... warn people, get control of situations, to make contact, that's awfully important," he said.

Applied Data Systems hopes uses for the technology will stretch beyond the military.

At trade shows, for instance, the Phraselator has prompted interest from fire officials whose crews enter communities where residents don't speak English and firefighters must quickly determine how many people are in a burning building, Olsen said.

Also, Applied Data Systems is planning to commercialize the devices within the next 1 1/2 years so tourists can take them abroad instead of foreign-language dictionaries.

For now, though, the units sent overseas are operational prototypes that can say more than 1,000 statements or questions that have been stored in the computer's memory.

The Phraselator looks something like an oversized Palm Pilot. It has a screen that lists different phrases and a built-in microphone next to the screen.

Company officials declined to state the price of the machine.

The developers of the Phraselator concede that it can be improved.

The current version, for instance, translates only from English into a foreign language, though it can record answers to later be translated by a person.

If an English-speaking doctor asks a foreign language-speaking patient, "Where does it hurt?" the patient must respond by showing, not telling.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense that is involved with the Phraselator project, is developing a technology to solve that problem.

Through that technology, called Babylon, people will be able to speak English phrases into the machine, then those phrases will be translated into a foreign language and a response in a foreign language will be translated back to English.

Challenges posed

But that technology, too, comes with challenges.

"The really difficult thing is where you've got speakers who may be excited, they may be talking fast, they may have a particular accent," said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. "That's really, really hard for a machine."

Goure, of the Lexington Institute, said such technology could have a full vocabulary and be handless, so that a microphone can be attached to a shirt lapel.

That way, the Phraselator could be used for intelligence.

"It is the future," Goure said. "We know that machine translation is something that's just terribly important to have for all kinds of roles, but certainly in the military."

Origins of device

The idea for the Phraselator was hatched by a doctor in Operation Desert Storm who could not communicate with patients who did not speak English.

He wrote programs on his personal computer that would allow him to point to a text phrase, and a matching recording would speak that phrase in a patient's native language, said Ace Sarich, a vice president of VoxTec's parent company and a retired Navy Seal.

"It demonstrated the concept beautifully that you can, in fact, communicate using one-way translation," Sarich said.

Sarich became involved with the project about four years ago, and in January last year, DARPA gave VoxTec a grant to shrink the technology down to a hand-held device that does phrase-based translation.

Extreme conditions

Applied Data Systems joined the Phraselator team early last year.

A privately held company with 46 employees, Applied Data Systems designs the computer boards behind screens that are embedded in things such as golf carts or farm equipment.

Because some of the places where its computers go can withstand extreme temperatures, Applied Data Systems could help the Phraselator work in unusual conditions.

But as the companies developed the Phraselator, their timeline was abruptly shortened by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the military requested the Phraselator for Operation Enduring Freedom.

The companies stepped up their pace and started delivering the units in March.

"The time horizon to do this was maybe two years, whereas after 9/11, that program was dramatically accelerated from two years to four months," Olsen said.

'I'm never alone'

The technology is in use in Afghanistan, Olsen said. An amateur video kept at Applied Data Systems shows a medic in Afghanistan describing how she uses the technology to ask children their names or tell patients when to take their medicine.

Holding the machine, she says into the camera:

"I'm never alone because, No. 1, I've got God, and, No. 2, I've got the Phraselator."

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