During the 18th century, many papyrus scrolls were found in the library of an opulent villa in Herculaneum. However, their contents remained unknown because scholars couldn’t unroll the scrolls to decode them. Any attempts to do so caused them to fall apart.
Recently three students won a $1 million prize after they used artificial intelligence to read a scroll that was burnt during Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in August 79AD. The 2,000-year-old scroll was charred in the town of Herculaneum during the mountain’s eruption, making it unreadable. Dr. Federica of the University of Naples stated that the scrolls’ being badly burnt by volcanic debris also helped preserve them.
A breakthrough in decoding the scripts came last year when a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky, led by Dr. Brent Seales, unrolled the scrolls using high-resolution CT scans. Despite this breakthrough, however, the carbon ink on the scrolls was illegible as its density was similar to the papyrus it was written on.
To help with this, Seales launched the Vesuvius Challenge in collaboration with investors in the tech sector. The challenge had a million-dollar prize for any individual who could present a solution on how the scrolls could be read. A group of three tech students realized that AI could be the solution.
Swiss robotics student Julian Schillinger, SpaceX intern Luke Farritor and Berlin PhD student Youssef Nader designed an artificial intelligence model that used pattern recognition to decipher the lettering on the texts. Thus far, the AI model has deciphered 2,000 Greek characters contained in one of the four scrolls scanned by the University of Kentucky researchers. The characters, πορφύραc, which refer to the word purple, represent some of the uncovered text.
The decoded scroll also discusses life’s sources of pleasure, mentioning food and music. It is thought to have belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
Scholars believe the writing style used is that of Philodemus, a Greek philosopher who followed Epicurus’ teachings. He is thought to have been residing at Herculaneum. In an excerpt, the philosopher questions if things in smaller quantities afford one more pleasure.
Experts have called this AI feat a “revolution” in Greek philosophy. Federica shared this sentiment, noting that this was the start of a revolution in Greek philosophy. The researchers hope to decode at least 90% of the texts they have scanned thus far using the AI model; in the future, they intend to scan all 800 scrolls.
Tech companies that are focused on making microchips and other critical components are facilitating the many use cases of artificial intelligence in different spheres of life as the reading of the ancient scrolls shows.
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