AI Decrypts a Family-Owned Old Text
After being burned in the Roman town of Herculaneum during the same eruption that devastated Pompeii, the old inscription was unreadable until recently.
It mentions food and music and is believed to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
The discovery has been dubbed a “revolution” in Greek philosophy by experts.
The literary style is thought to be typical of the Greek philosopher Philodemus, who adhered to Epicurus’s beliefs and may have served as Herculaneum’s resident philosopher.
The sole known collection of literature from the Roman era was found in the town’s opulent villa’s library in the 18th century, containing hundreds of papyrus scrolls.
Scholars were unable to decipher their contents since they were so severely scorched by volcanic material that they crumbled apart in their hands.
The University of Naples’ Dr. Federica, a papyrology scholar, claimed that this “curse” is also their salvation. The eruption’s high temperatures carbonized and preserved the inscriptions, which otherwise would have broken down.
A breakthrough was achieved last year when Dr. Brent Seales and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky were able to unravel the letters using high-resolution CT scans; however, the inscriptions’ black carbon ink was unreadable from the papyrus itself.
In collaboration with IT investors, Dr. Seales introduced the Vesuvius Challenge, which offered a $1 million (£790,000) reward to the first person to find a solution.
Three students working in technology rather than philosophy realized artificial intelligence might hold the key to the solution.
An AI model that was able to decipher the letters through pattern recognition was created by Youssef Nader, a PhD candidate in Berlin; Luke Farritor, a student and intern at SpaceX; and Julian Schillinger, a student studying robotics in Switzerland.
“This is the beginning of a revolution in Greek philosophy in general,” Dr. Federica declared.
Just 5% of the text, or 2,000 Greek characters, have been decoded by the model thus far from one of the four scrolls that Dr. Seales’ team scanned.
When the characters are translated, it becomes clear that the author is talking about food and music as sources of happiness in life.
Philodemus doubts if items that are scarcer provide greater pleasure in a particular section, saying, “As too in the case of food, we do not right away believe things that are scarce to be absolutely more pleasant than those which are abundant.”
The Vesuvius Challenge team anticipates that 90% of the four scrolls scanned this year and eventually all 800 can be read using the technology.