IM, machine translation on front lines of Iraq

So how do you get soldiers and commanders speaking different languages in a theater of war to communicate effectively and not, for example, blow each other up mistakenly? Take off the shelf instant messaging software and throw in a dose of machine translation. So says the Office of Naval Research.From the Office of Naval Research:’Chatting’ in Iraq

The coalition chat line helps troops communicate

United States and allied forces in Iraq face a complex environment of brutal enemies, new political entities, and vastly different cultures. The challenges are multiplied by language barriers: the Arabic of the Iraqis and the many languages of allies whose forces are supporting the operation. Yet today, technology funded by the Office of Naval Research, among other DoD organizations, is helping to narrow that cultural gap by enabling U.S. and coalition forces to communicate more effectively with the Iraqis and among themselves.

A “coalition chat line” now being used at several U.S. and allied sites around Iraq enables commanders and operators who speak different languages to communicate rapidly and reliably, using the “instant messaging” practices familiar to millions of teenagers.

In late 2002, Rear Adm. David T. Hart Jr., deputy commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, suggested the U.S. and its allies use off-the-shelf technology to help them communicate rapidly and accurately, in a way that would reduce the costs and delays of conventional translation practices. In response, ONR’s science advisor at the Naval European Command, Chris Hillenbrand, set up a working group with ONR’s Tech Solutions office and the ONR math, computer and information sciences division to modify a program that MITRE Corp. had developed for several other service programs. TRIM, or trans-lingual instant messaging, was used in conjunction with a machine-translation engine from Logomedia Corp. and integrated with other commercial IT hardware. The result: the Coalition Chat Line. The technology is getting rave reviews from U.S. and allied-coalition personnel.

The chat line technology was evaluated during the May 2003 allied-coalition exercise Combined Endeavor, in which 39 nations participated. It was further evaluated in June during the annual BALTOPS, for the forces of 12 nations.

A call from an officer with the U.S.-allied Multi-National Division (MND) who had used the technology during Combined Endeavor, set the prototype chat line software through a quick round of testing at the Navy’s SPAWAR Systems Center, San Diego. It was tested simultaneously in San Diego; London; Stuttgart, Germany; and Baghdad.

Hillenbrand and his team brought 10 notebook computers loaded with the chat line program to Iraq in November. Over four days they installed the software at MND headquarters at Al Hilla; a site run by a Polish unit at Karbala; a Spanish operation in Ad Diwaniyah; and for a Ukrainian brigade at Al Kut. The Ukrainians were able to use Cyrillic character sets with the chat line.

The chat line capability proved so effective and popular that the MND installed it on the more than 200 computers of their information-systems action officers. The chat line prototype, Hillenbrand says, “made a clean sweep” through the MND central network.

“The whole effort really extended across commands,” notes Hillenbrand, “it’s taken off like a freight train on the run.” The project is a collaboration of ONR, SPAWAR, European Command, and the U.S. Central Command–as well as the allies. The team now is responding to requests for the chat line capability from the U.S. senior army commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and the British commander in southern Iraq.

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