04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where Is My Star Trek Universal Translator?

I am happy to report that we (and by we I mean the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Program Agency) are closer than ever before to coming out with a hand held translation device. Yes the same people who brought you the internet and GPS, are currently funding a research initiative titled the Robust Automatic Translation of Speech program to streamline the translation process.

As reported by Katie Dummond on Wired Magazine's blog The Danger Room

What troops really need is a machine that can pick out voices from the noise, understand and translate all kinds of different languages, and then identify the voice from a hit list of "wanted speakers.

The goal is to have a working model that is the size of an iPod and is 98% accurate in 20 essential languages. Such a device would quite literally change the way we fight wars and respond to disasters. A common complaint from the battlefield is the poor quality of many translators who simply do no possess the English language skills... properly convey the meaning of locals. The ability to engage local populations directly would not only be a huge help in our counterinsurgency efforts, it would also greatly increase our troops' ability to get the jump on enemy forces who often advertise their attacks over non-secure radio transmissions.

While we have yet to see any company come out with a truly effective and versatile translation device, some version of translation hardware has been in use by the US military since at least the Tsunami Relief effort where troops used translation modules to ask locals about their access to clean water and whether they had missing family members. This early version of a translation device was known as the phraselator was similarly used in the early days of the Iraq War (2003) to assist a military that had virtually no Arab speakers at the time.

More recently, the military has purchased a software called Madcat that can be used either on a laptop or PDA to translate foreign text, be it neatly printed in a book or sloppily written graffitti on a village wall. DARPA hopes that its next generation voice translation software can be equally effective at translating Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Dari and Urdu with more languages to be added in the future.

While I am very happy that the military will finally be getting this piece of technology it so desperately needs, I have concerns about the commercial application of such devices. Firstly, I worry that if accurate translation software becomes commercially available in say the form of an Iphone app that the current focus of learning foreign languages in school will fall to the wayside just as spelling has become a low priority since the advent of spell check software. My second fear is that I cringe at the thought of Clark Griswold style Americans being unleashed upon the rest of the world yelling at waiters in cafes through their hand held robotic sounding translation devices. Honestly, the mere thought of it would deter me from ever leaving the country lest I be mistaken for one of THOSE Americans.


If you don't know who Clark Griswold is then I pity you