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IBM donates Arabic translation devices and software to US gov

Aims to get Iraq talking

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The experiences of IBM staff who served in the 2003 invasion of Iraq have prompted the tech giant to donate language translation technology to the US military.

IBM said it is making a humanitarian donation to the United States government of 1,000 two-way translation devices and 10,000 copies of linguistic software.

This system - code-named Mastor (for Multilingual Automatic Speech Translator) - can recognise and translate a vocabulary of over 50,000 English and 100,000 Iraqi Arabic words.

Originally designed for use in medical and police training courses, the Mastor systems are being donated to the US authorities to "support better communication in Iraq" and improve the safety of US and coalition personnel, as well as staff in non-governmental organisations.

For example, US checkpoints on Iraqi roads would be able to speak into a microphone connected to a laptop with Mastor software installed, and either have their English words played back to an Iraqi driver in Arabic, or have the speech translated and displayed graphically on a screen.

In a letter to US president George W Bush outlining the latest contribution, IBM chairman and chief executive Samuel J Palmisano said the company was making the donation in response to the experiences of his staff: "IBM employees returning from service with the US military in Iraq have consistently emphasised two points: the importance of communicating with the Iraqi people and the operational challenges posed by the need to do so. Although in many instances human translators are essential, we also believe that there are technological solutions to help mitigate the problem."

In a statement issued by IBM, it referenced figures from the US Congress' Baker-Hamilton Commission, also known as the Iraqi Study Group Report, showing a distinct lack of Arabic speakers among US personnel. According to the report, of 1,000 US Embassy workers, only 33 are Arabic speakers, and only six are fluent. The report also stressed concern about the safety of Iraqis hired by coalition forces, and newspapers continually report on attacks on Iraqi retainers by armed resistance groups.

IBM is hoping that its donation of translation systems will therefore improve communication between Iraqis and Americans and save lives on both sides.

"The Government sincerely appreciates IBM's efforts in offering this donation," said Admiral Edmund Giambastiani, vice chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This type of technology can help to improve communication for US and coalition personnel with Iraqi citizens and aid organisations serving in Iraq," he said.

IBM said its secondary goal was to encourage other private sector organisations to speed up development of their translation technologies and prompt other companies to contribute to humanitarian missions.

Development of the Mastor technology began in 2001 at IBM's TJ Watson Research Center and gained development support as part of the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA's) Spoken Language Communication and Translation System for Tactical Use (TRANSTAC) program.

The technology is designed for users to converse naturally, producing audible and text translations of the spoken words that can run on a variety of devices such as PDAs, tablet PCs or laptop computers. In addition to Iraqi Arabic, the technology is available in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Standard Arabic.

Copyright © 2007, ENN

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