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An American Pipe Dream

February 22, 2011

E.J. Manning

For years, the leadership of world nations have often sought a universal translator. Philosophers and mathematicians have been proposing the potential of a universal language translator from the time of the Greeks. Researchers were making bold and specific claims about the imminence of effective language translation by machines in the 1950s, when computers still depended on punch cards.

This is hardly the case today with the tremendous rise in power and capability that is seen in modern computing. Yet, computing capability to deal with modern language translation is still quite poor. The problem of language translation by machine has never been truly resolved. The Pentagon is hungry for action on this. The Congress has thrown them a bone because the United States Department of Defense, via DARPA, seems to think that language translation by computer is an attainable goal in the near term. DARPA’s 2012 budget request (PDF) contains the following initiative, for which $15 million will be earmarked in 2012:

The Boundless Operational Language Translation (BOLT) program will enable communication regardless of medium (voice or text), and genre (conversation, chat, or messaging) through expansion of language translation capabilities, human-machine-multimodal dialogue, and language generation. The BOLT program will enable warfighters and military/government personnel to readily communicate with coalition partners and local populations and will enhance intelligence through better exploitation of all language sources including messaging and conversations. The program will also enable sophisticated search of stored language information and analysis of the information by increasing the capability of machines for deep language comprehension.

DARPA is planning a universal translation technology that:

  • Translates text
  • Translates voice messages
  • Understands colloquial errors as well as incorrect
  • Understands incomplete syntax
  • Interprets poor pronunciation.

Whether this kind of a program should be attempted through additional funding is highly debatable. Corporations have been hard at work on machine translation for years, and have invested millions of dollars with varying degrees of success. Certainly, the NSA and other government agencies have enough funding to search for an answer for automated language translation. After all, most of this funding is kept from public knowledge, so why blow a mere $15 mil under the public scrutiny of government earmarks  when they can get billions through underground financing? This waste of $15  million dollars will hardly buy a white paper study and a forum on the topic. Yet, to a little guy like you or me, $15 million clams is a tidy sum, especially in this economy.

The government is building a new costly campus for NASA, while NASA faces massive cuts, including jobs. President Obama has extended the current space shuttle program in an effort to keep the economy more stable. Yet, this is the mere tip of the iceberg in government waste and expenditure that is chronically out of control, sold to the American taxpayer as hope. Hope is President Obama’s political mainstay. Money equals hope. Money is never an issue when a senator wants a goodie, or the nation needs clandestine funding. When will it end? Only when the nation bankrupts itself. Aren’t we there already? How about admitting the truth for a change instead of continuing to borrow on human capital for ambiguous puposes?

1950s dream of language translation

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