The Pentagon has a communication problem. With a shortage of linguists to assist with humanitarian and military situations, defense officials may be at a loss for words, but not ideas, to solve the problem. Defense officials are looking at high-tech measures to keep channels of communication open.
Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld concedes the Pentagon has a serious language problem. "It is true that the United States government does not have as many Arabic speakers as we would wish," he said.
But it is not just Arabic. Mr. Rumsfeld could just as easily have cited shortages of speakers of Pashto, Dari, Urdu and Uzbek - all critical to operations in and around Afghanistan.
The defense secretary says help is on the way.
"We are doing things about that and bringing people back in and borrowing people from other government entities and using reservists who are being called up who have that competence."
But the government is not just counting on more skilled linguists. It is also exploring a high-technology solution to the language problem, and that is where the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has stepped in.
DARPA is working on something called Babylon. It could be considered the Holy Grail of translating, an instantaneous, two-way, hand-held speech translating device that will let American soldiers speak and understand Arabic, Pashto, Dari and Urdu without any previous knowledge of those languages.
DARPA officials concede that creating a truly effective two-way speech translator is proving difficult and complicated.
But the agency has already sent experimental one-way, palm-sized translating devices to Afghanistan and says it is considering development of a Babylon module for use at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to assist in the interrogations of Taleban and al-Qaida detainees.
DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker says the one-way devices now under testing in Afghanistan work this way: a pre-programmed phrase is selected, say an English phrase dealing with a security or medical matter. The device then broadcasts the recording of a native speaker of, say, Pashto repeating the phrase in that foreign language.
The devices were delivered just 90 days after the start of U.S. operations in Afghanistan last October. Spokeswoman Walker says the agency is hoping to get useful feedback on how they work from those testing them in the field.
Even when a fully operational Babylon two-way speech translating device becomes available, researchers say the initial programs will be limited to what they term 'military task domains.' They say open-domain or unconstrained dialogue translations suitable to any environment are still five to 10 years away.
But the researchers are not just stopping there. DARPA has also disclosed it is pursuing another program called TIDES - Translingual Information Detection, Extraction and Summarization. The goal is to enable English speakers to locate and interpret critical information in foreign languages from raw audio or texts. The technology is designed to help discover specific information in the audio or text, extract the information and then convert it to English.
DARPA says it is already testing two text and audio processing systems in experiments involving the subjects of bio-security and terrorism. It says work on Arabic language versions has been substantially accelerated in response to the terrorist attacks of last September on the United States.