Monday, November 28, 2005

Talk, Computer

Urban ops are a lot harder to do when you don't speak the local natives' language, as the US military well knows. While it has boosted its efforts to train soldiers to speak key languages like Arabic (see "Renaissance Soldiers"), the US DoD also apparently hopes that it can create a machine that would simply translate what the other person is saying.

The latest program by DARPA is a $16 million project to develop software that would transcribe speach into text while simultaneously translating that text into English. Various handheld devices being touted at the most recent Association of the US Army show in Washington, though not as amitious as the DARPA project, are also supposed to help soldiers in the field when encountering language problems.

Maybe anything is better than nothing when it comes to this problem of language. Then again, given the complexities of language -- the way one word can have multiple meanings depending on the context, or how an individual person's accent can make a word sound similar to another, completely different word -- I wonder if this is not an instance where technology vendors promise solutions to a problem whose solution lies not in technology, but in old-fashioned human brain power.

For soldiers trying to win over the trust of the local populace during a mission, holding out a machine that speaks on their behalf or innaccurately translates what is being said seems possibly ridiculous. Imagine an American trying to use such a device to order a meal at a cafe in Paris -- the waiter would not be impressed.

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