IBM donates translation software for use in Iraq

IBM donates 10,000 copies of its speech-translation software and 1,000 laptops

IBM made the unprecedented move to donate 10,000 copies of its speech-translation software and 1,000 laptops to run the software to the U.S. government for use in humanitarian settings in Iraq.

Published reports say the move was prompted by the wounding of an IBM employees' son in Iraq, among other things. Some 160 IBM employees have served in the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan, and many have reported to IBM the need for better communications, IBM said.

In a letter to President George W. Bush outlining the contribution, IBM Chairman and CEO Samuel J. Palmisano stated, "IBM employees returning from service with the U.S. military in Iraq have consistently emphasized 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."

IBM further said the intent of the donation is to help augment human translators and improve the safety of U.S. and coalition personnel, citizens and staff of nongovernmental aid organizations.

Specifically, IBM will provide 1,000 two-way automatic translation devices and 10,000 copies of the software for future use.

The systems can recognize and translate a vocabulary of over 50,000 English and 100,000 Iraqi Arabic words, and are designed for civil application environments such as hospitals and training.

The IBM systems are advanced, two-way "speech-to-speech" translators -- code-named MASTOR (for Multilingual Automatic Speech Translator) -- that improve communication between English and Iraqi Arabic speakers. The lack of understanding of Iraqi Arabic is a major concern among military personnel, their families, and civilians in Iraq. The issue was recently addressed in the Iraqi Study Group report, which highlighted the importance of better communication and recommended this issue be given the highest possible priority. According to the report, of 1,000 U.S. Embassy workers, only 33 are Arabic speakers, and only six are at the level of fluency. Another concern is the safety of those providing translation services and protecting translators in conflict settings.

There are fewer than 20 commercial translation systems available globally. Yet the need for cross-language communication has never been more urgent. A secondary goal of IBM's contribution is to encourage other private sector organizations to speed their translation development and deployment, advance collaboration among this community of innovators, and prompt additional companies to extend their resources for similar humanitarian missions.

According to an Associated Press report the government is trying to figure out how to or if it indeed can accept the donation. The AP story goes on to say it is very rare for a large defense contractor like IBM, which does roughly US$3 billion worth of federal business every year, to give the government a freebie.

It is also worth noting that MASTOR has been undergoing testing by the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, in addition to a rival two-way translation technology known as IraqComm from nonprofit SRI International. Both systems take English or Arabic that is spoken into a computer microphone, translate it into the other language and utter it through the machine's speakers, the AP says.

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