How a 21-year-old deciphered an ancient scroll with AI
He won $40,000!
From using predictive models on cancer, helping stroke victims speak, and even creating unique art - AI is doing amazing things for the betterment of the world. But AI isn’t always looking forward - with the help of a student from the University of Nebraska, AI is helping us uncover humanity's history.
The year is 1752, and a group of workers accidentally stumble upon the ruins of a small village destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In this mess, they find 800 or so rocks. Except they are not rocks - they are the remains of papyrus scrolls. Historians theorize that they came from the personal library of the philosopher Philodemus. They tried to unroll them but just ended up destroying the ones they attempted.
So, since the 19th century, no one attempted to unravel these scrolls out of fear that they would be destroyed. This means these documents haven’t even been attempted to read for around 2000 years.
The year is 2023, and Nat Friedman (former CEO of Github) and Daniel Gross (millionaire entrepreneur) set forth a challenge. They named it The Vesuvius Challenge, and the goal was to use today's technology to reconstruct these ancient documents.
The organizers set monetary prizes - ranging from $5,000 to $700,000. They must seriously want to know what is on these scrolls. So, with that type of money on the line - you had people all over the world start working on this project in hopes of getting that cash!
Enter Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old computer science student from the University of Nebraska. Like the other competitors, the first challenge he had to overcome was the fact that the type of ink used had no trace elements.
In the scans, the ancient writing looked identical to the paper it was on. To deal with this issue, Luke trained an AI to detect minute changes in the surface texture of the ancient scroll. While looking at the scans of one of the scrolls (P.Herc.Paris.3 to be exact), the AI helped him piece together some letters.
And from the letters, the AI was able to find a word.
Luke recalled that seeing actual letters, even though in a different language, almost made him fall over with excitement.
The first thing to note is that the scroll was written in ancient Greek. The second thing to note is that they found a word they could translate.
Πορφύραc is an ancient Greek word that translates to purple. So, the very first word deciphered from these ancient scrolls was a colour. The word Luke discovered might have been purple - but it earned him a lot of green.
For his efforts, Luke won $40,000 USD.
This is a life-changing amount of money for a redefining discovery. You may be wondering why this is such a huge discovery - all he found was the word purple. Well, yes.
Luke’s work had been built on decades of work from other scientists, notably Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. But Luke's findings also help propel even more research and funding into the project. If they can find one word, they can find others.
So, it is just a matter of time until they can digitally unravel these scrolls and let us know what information was lost to time.
There are reports that stoic philosophers Seneca, Chrysippus, and Epicurus have work scatted in these scrolls. What is written on them will give us an even deeper understanding of a very popular philosophy.
Beyond that, these scrolls just seem to be the testing grounds. If the technology works on these scrolls, imagine what else is out there waiting to be rediscovered. This means that AI isn’t just providing us with a way to make our futures better - it is also giving us a way to understand our history better.