Psst, Military: There’s Already a Universal Translator in
the App Store
Dari on your iPhone. On the other: around $50 million in federal money, this
year alone, for research into a Cadillac version of the same translation tools.
Which sounds like the better deal?
As Danger Room first reported in February, the Pentagon’s
blue-sky researchers are asking Congress to fund three major pushes for
developing a universal translation device. Darpa’s projects admittedly sound
cool. BOLT, the Boundless Operational Language Translation, will be so
sophisticated it can understand foreign slang. Robust Automatic
Translation of Speech — yes, RATS — will know the difference between speech that
needs translating and background noise to discard. MADCAT is a mobile document
reader that translates text.
And while all that goes through the federal funding,
acquisition and development process, along comes the SpeechTrans
app for the iPhone and iPad. Load the app, record a spoken phrase you want
translated, choose your foreign language, and the app will speak it back to you,
all while displaying both versions of your text on the screen. National Defense reports the New Jersey-based company is
working to add Afghan languages “that troops need in current combat zones.”
The 1.2 version of the “universal” SpeechTrans already offers Arabic.
BOLT killer? Not necessarily.
The Army really,
really wants to equip its soldiers with smartphones. It’s
just also having a hard time saying goodbye to the expensive high-tech
development projects that smartphones appear to make irrelevant.
Nett Warrior, for instance, is a multimillion wearable suite
of computers, sensors, cameras, datalinks and mapping tools. It’s not hard to
imagine a smartphone or a tablet replicating all those functions in a much
lighter and more intuitive device. The defense contractor market is evidently betting on exactly that circumstance. But
Nett Warrior’s program managers say that it’s better to incorporate a smartphone into the
Cyborg-looking gear than to scrap Nett Warrior and make a concerted push to
give every soldier a Droid or iPhone.
Like Nett Warrior, BOLT, RATS and MADCAT aren’t ready to be
issued to the troops. The tens of millions that Darpa is requesting from
Congress next year are for research. But they’ve also got the distributed
intelligence and experience of app designers acting tacitly as competition. The
Android Market’s got its own translation apps ready to go for travelers. All Darpa’s
programs sound like they’d be much more sophisticated than anything on the
But troops in Afghanistan need translation tools now. And
before any of the service branches gets around to selecting a smartphone for
military use — let alone issuing one — troops are already using the phones they
own in civilian life to help them do their jobs. SpeechTrans could be the next
such example. The “universal” version, which allows translation into multiple
languages, will set you back $19.99 in the App Store.
None of that means SpeechTrans and Darpa have to be in competition. Darpa’s research will surely
draw on existing translation technology. Translation app companies might bid on
the contracts to develop BOLT or RATS. And both projects, once developed, will
likely migrate into civilian markets — as evidenced by the fact that you’re
reading this post on the Internet Darpa created.
But the advance of “good enough” technology still doesn’t move
the military out of its typical R&D cycles. That’s why, say, special
operators — who get around typical bureaucratic obstacles for a living — are
already looking at Android devices to keep
themselves connected. With another round of defense budget cuts forthcoming, the
Pentagon and Congress might ask if commercially available smartphones and
tablets offer a cheaper path to the tech the Defense Department wants. Maybe
SpeechTrans could convert that sentiment into Pentagon-ese.