Student Helps Develop Translator for Military

Published: October 17th, 2005

Category: News

In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Americans felt paralyzed, wondering what they could do to help.

Law student Mike Geers (2L) didn’t just wonder. He temporarily walked away from his law school career to work on technology that helps the military fight the war in Afghanistan.

Geers went to work for SRI International, a California-based technology company that developed a small, portable device that translates spoken English into speech in various Afghan dialects.

“At the time, as now, there was a serious shortage of people trained as translators,” Geers said. “With increasing numbers of people going into Afghanistan, there was an increasing need need for some way for soldiers to communicate with the locals.”

Formerly known as Stanford Research Institute, SRI had been producing computerized translation devices for years, but most of those machines translated English into Western European languages. The company needed native speakers of Afghan dialects to help them develop a device for Afghanistan, and in the post-Sept. 11 environment, bringing native speakers into the country became more difficult than ever. That’s where Geers came in.

“My job was to take care of government compliance and security issues in regards to obtaining appropriate visas for Afghani citizens who were working on the project,” he said.

SRI’s device has been used successfully in the field in Afghanistan, Geers said. While the device doesn’t allow for complex conversations, he said, it is extremely useful in helping soldiers express their intentions to Afghanis they meet.

“The reports back from the field indicate that it has enabled some on-the-spot mediation that wouldn’t have taken place otherwise,” he said.

Geers said his device, now being sold in a slightly modified civilian version known as the Phraselator, has been used in humanitarian efforts in the region, including the response to the recent earthquake in Pakistan.

After three years with SRI, Geers is back in law school. While the break may have delayed plans for his legal career, he said he is grateful for the opportunity to work on a project that helps the United States in its efforts in Afghanistan.

“If you look at the friendly fire incidents and accidental shootings that have occasionally happened, you can see how important good communication can be,” he said.

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