AI helps decipher Herculaneum scrolls that haven’t been read for 2,000 years

The organizers of the Vesuvius Challenge, which started in 2023, have now announced their grand prize winners who successfully uncovered ancient secrets hidden in fossilized scrolls. The announcement not only marks the culmination of ingenious work, but could also signal an exciting new era of research.

The Vesuvius Challenge was launched in March 2023 with the not-too-ambitious goal of “making history” (which, it’s safe to say, they’ve probably achieved). Organizers encouraged individuals from different academic backgrounds to devise new methods to read ancient scrolls recovered from the pyrogenic remains of Herculaneum, Italy.

The scrolls, now completely petrified, were originally located in the Villa Papyri, a rich estate that was buried under volcanic ash and rubble when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE.

The estate and library were subsequently rediscovered in the 18th century, but despite being well preserved, the rolls have remained illegible. This is because the heat from the eruption is essentially “Deep-fried‘, turning them into charred chunks. But now, after ten months of hard work, the winners of the Vesuvius Challenge have found ways to unravel these valuable artifacts using artificial intelligence (AI) techniques that scan their contents without damaging their fragile structure.

Nat Friedman, the former CEO of GitHub, and a team of scientists launched the Vesuvius Challenge to find new ways to approach these once obscure texts. They launched the competition with several financial prizes, including the $700,000 grand prize, for anyone who could help unlock it.

Then, in October 2023, Friedman announced the First Letters Prize to a 21-year-old computer science student, Luke Farritor, who managed to decipher the word “πορφυρας” on a scroll, meaning “purple dye” or “wipes of cloth” means. purple”. This award was soon followed by another for Youssef Nader, who identified the same work, but with greater clarity.

Both results would not have been possible without the work of First Ink Prize winner Casey Handmer, who found a way to identify the presence of ink in the unopened scroll.

Now Friedman has announced the top prize winners for their groundbreaking effort to reveal more than 2,000 Greek letters from the scroll.

“We received many excellent entries for the Vesuvius Challenge grand prize, some in the final minutes before the midnight deadline on January,” Friedman and colleagues wrote on their competition website.

“We presented these entries to the judging team and they were received with great surprise. We carefully reviewed all entries during the month of January. Our team of leading papyrologists worked around the clock to review fifteen columns of text in anonymized submissions, while the technical team checked and reproduced the submitted code and methods.”

But out of all the incredible entries, there was one that stood out from the rest. The entry was so rich that each member of the team of papyrologists, working independently, was able to extract more text from it than from any other.

As the Vesuvius Challenge organizers explained: “Remarkably, the entry met the criteria we set when announcing the Vesuvius Challenge in March: 4 passages of 140 characters each, with at least 85 characters. [percent] number of characters recoverable. This wasn’t a given: most of us on the organizing team had fewer than 30 assigned [percent] chance of success when we announced these criteria! And on top of that, the entry contains another 11 (!) columns of text – more than 2,000 characters in total.”

The team responsible for this huge success included Farritor and Nader, the winners of the previous awards, and Julian Schilliger, the winner of three Segmentation Tooling awards for his work on Volume Cargrapher. Schilliger’s work had made it possible to map in 3D the papyrus areas used in the winning entry.

“For the main prize [these three previous winners] merged into a super team, which crushed it by creating what was unanimously considered the most readable entry.

For more details on how the team achieved this, see the Vesuvius Challenge process description and how each member contributed to and built on the other’s work.

So what does it say?

So far, researchers who examined the first scroll have managed to read about 5 percent of it. The preliminary transcription indicates that this is a completely original text and not a duplicate of other work. It seems that this philosophical text deals with the subject of ‘pleasure’, the highest form of good according to Epicurean philosophy.

“In these two excerpts from two consecutive columns of the scroll, the author is concerned with the question of whether and how the availability of goods, such as food, can influence the pleasure they provide.” The papyrologists explain.

“Do things that are available in smaller quantities provide more pleasure than things that are available in abundance? Our author doesn’t think so: ‘as in the case of food, we do not immediately believe that things that are scarce are absolutely more pleasant than things that are plentiful..’ However, is it easier for us to do naturally without the things that abound? ‘Such questions will be discussed regularly.’”

It appears that this question was asked at the end of the text, indicating that the answers may have been stored in other roles in the same collection. Interestingly, the beginning of the first test text mentions a Xenophantos, who may have been a musician and was also mentioned in the work. To music by Philodemus, an Epicurean who may have been the philosopher in the Villa Papyri.

“Scientists might call it a philosophical treatise,” the organizers of the Vesuvius Challenge explain. “But it seems familiar, and we can’t help but feel that the first text we discovered is a 2,000-year-old blog post about how to enjoy life. Does Philodemus throw shade at the Stoics in his closing paragraph, claiming that Stoicism is an incomplete philosophy because it has “nothing to say about pleasure”? The questions he seems to discuss – the joys of life and what makes life worth living – are still in our minds.”

What is clear is that this is just the beginning of what could be a whole new chapter in historical analysis. A new and exciting rediscovery of ancient works that apparently not even a volcano can hide forever.

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