Artificial intelligence used to decipher scrolls charred by the eruption of Vesuvius

Artificial intelligence used to decipher scrolls charred by the eruption of Vesuvius

In particular, researchers used artificial intelligence to distinguish ink from papyrus and determine the nature of Greek letters by detecting duplicates.

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View from the top of Vesuvius, Italy, October 22, 2023. (MARY EVANS / SIPA)

They won a prize of $700,000 (651,000 euros). Three researchers were rewarded on Monday, February 5 for their success in deciphering, using artificial intelligence, a small portion of handwritten manuscripts that were severely damaged by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The competition, called the “Vesuvius Challenge,” was created by Brent Sills, a computer science researcher at the University of Kentucky in the United States, and Nat Friedman, founder of GitHub, which is now owned by Microsoft.

The Herculaneum Papyri consists of about 800 manuscripts that, according to the competition organizers, were charred during this eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. The scrolls resemble charred logs and are kept in the Institut de France in Paris and the National Library in Naples, and they crumble and are easily damaged when attempted to be opened.

5% of the decoded scroll

Organizers had previously conducted scans of four manuscripts and offered a total reward of $1 million to anyone who could decipher at least 85% of four 140-character syllables. The winners are Youssef Nader, a doctoral student in Berlin, Luc Varietor, a student and intern at SpaceX from Nebraska in the United States, and Julian Schleger, a Swiss robotics student.

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The trio specifically used artificial intelligence to distinguish ink from papyrus and determine the nature of Greek letters by detecting duplicates. They have deciphered about 5% of the scroll. According to the competition organizers, the author of the papyrus is “Possibly the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus”writing “About food, music, and how to enjoy the pleasures of life.”

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