Researchers, one of them Egyptian, decode burnt manuscripts with artificial intelligence

Three researchers, one of whom was Egyptian, won a $700,000 prize on Monday for their success in using artificial intelligence to decipher a small portion of nearly 2,000-year-old manuscripts that were discovered at the foot of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD. were seriously damaged by the explosion. Agence France-Presse.

He started a competition called the “Vesuvius Challenge”; Brent Sales, a computer science researcher at the University of Kentucky, in addition to Nat Friedman, founder of the GitHub platform, which is now owned by Microsoft.

Organizers of the competition said the Herculaneum Manuscripts include about 800 manuscripts that burned during the eruption that buried the Italian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum nearly two thousand years ago.

These scrolls, which resemble burnt tree trunks and are housed in the Institut de France in Paris and the National Library in Naples, break and are easily damaged when trying to open.

The result of attempting to physically open a scroll.  vesuvius challenge
Burnt scrolls housed at the Institut de France in Paris and the National Library in Naples are broken and damaged when opened (Vesuvius Challenge Competition)

Before the contest, organizers scanned four manuscripts and offered a total prize of $1 million to anyone who could decode at least 85% of the four 140-character letters.

The winning trio of the “Vesuvius Challenge” competition includes Youssef Nader, an Egyptian doctoral student in Berlin, SpaceX trainee Luke Veriter from Nebraska in the United States, and Swiss robotics student Julian Schlager.

The trio used artificial intelligence to analyze the ink on the papyrus, and determined the nature of the Greek letters by monitoring repetitions. Using this technique, Luke was able to understand the first word in the variator passage, which is “violet” in Greek.

According to the organizers, thanks to their cooperation, they were able to decipher about 5% of the manuscripts. Nat Friedman reported that its author was “likely the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus” who wrote about “food, music, and how to enjoy the joys of life.”

Some historians believe that these documents were previously owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father of Calpurnia, one of Julius Caesar's wives. The “Villa of Papyrus”, where the manuscripts were found in the eighteenth century, is still mostly buried, and is believed to contain thousands of other manuscripts.

“Some of these texts may cause a complete rethinking of the history of key stages of the ancient world,” Robert Fowler, researcher and president of the Herculaneum Society, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Deciphering these texts would indeed be a major accomplishment, as an inventory conducted by the University of California, Irvine revealed that only 3 to 5% of ancient Greek texts have survived into the modern era.

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