Scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology try to bring Star Trek's translation technology to the battlefront, pave the way for hilarious mis-communications.
On a tense night somewhere outside of Kandahar, a US Marine or British Soldier stops a car to find out just where the Pashto-speaking driver and his passengers are going. Without a standby interpreter, signs have to be mimed back and and forth, with the clear presence of firearms keeping the occupants of the car alert and the potential for IEDs in the car keeping the military personnel on their toes.
In a country where English is spoken haltingly if at all, clear communication is paramount. Translators can't be everywhere and those that are available do not always accurately communicate the interests of both parties.
Enter science, wearing a cape, spandex tights and a large "S".
Enter the researches at NIST, who shake their collective heads at how science gets its groove on and get themselves to work. Over the last four years, the NIST team has been developing the TRANSTAC communications system - that's "spoken language communication and TRANSlation system for TACtical use", for those who like convoluted acronyms.
The system works through a standard mobile-phone based technology. In the Afghan checkpoint situation, a solider speaks into the phone, and his or her English words are converted in to the driver's native Pashto and saved as a .wav file. The phone is then passed to the driver, and the .wav file is played. The driver responds, the speech is converted back and presto - instant communications.
The TRANSTAC project has been tested with three mobile devices under controlled conditions, and is currently undergoing evaluation by both military personnel and trained linguists to determine the accuracy of the communication.
His voicemail: He is checking it.
While this is a potentially significant improvement to the "old way", two immediate problems spring to mind. The first is that this little device is just that - little. In a foot solider/vehicle driver situation, the driver could easily take the phone for "translation purposes" and put the pedal to the metal. Granted, car manufacturing in Afghanistan isn't exactly well-regulated and the driver wouldn't get far, but it would not take much to have one of these devices broken, stolen, or "lost".
As well, the device has no ability to sense deceit. Sure, it makes the basic process of car stops more streamlined, but it does not prevent the stopee from lying through their teeth. Soldiers have to be on guard for this regardless, but in some ways the TRANSTAC device represents more of a burden than a help.
Still, this is one giant step forward for both military communication and popular culture references. Soon, the entire world will be able to connect via the joy of mutually understood Internet memes.