The quest for a machine that can reliably translate between one language and another has been going on since 1954, when IBM translated the first pieces of text from English to Russian. Obviously, a “universal translator” would be a tremendous asset to the military, especially as they often have a scarcity of competent interpreters.
Machine translation has progressed by leaps and bounds, but a truly dependable “universal translator” has not yet been developed. However, the US Department of Defense is not giving up. Darpa, the Defense Department’s research arm, has requested $15 million from the US Congress for a “ Boundless Operational Language Translation” system.
Why can’t the Pentagon just use Google Translate for free? Well, as cool as Google’s technology is, it’s still prone to failure. For example, Technorati’s Translation Guy tested out Google’s Translation iPhone app with hilarious results, as the question “where’s the bathroom?” came out “The bathroom is here” when Google was done rendering it into Japanese.
The US Defense Department isn’t just out to best Google, though. Per Wired, they also want their BOLT to “enable sophisticated search of stored language information and analysis of the information by increasing the capability of machines for deep language comprehension.”
How is Darpa planning to build this miraculous device? According to Wired:
“All Darpa proposes that it needs to do, for starters, is teach a machine how to deal with the non-programmatic aspects of speech — bad syntax, poor diction, slang, accents — that a strictly logical order processes as incomprehensible anomalies. Then it has to “enable machines to carry on multi-modal dialogues with humans and to comprehend concepts and generate responses in multilingual environments.”
Sounds to me like what they’re looking for is a protocol droid. Send in C3PO!