21-year-old student uses AI to finally decipher part of ancient papyrus scroll

A computer science student has managed to decipher the first word on an ancient Roman scroll carbonized by a Mount Vesuvius eruption – with the help of artificial intelligence.

For his achievement, the student, 21-year-old Luke Farritor, has won $40,000. But he should probably share the prize with AI as it helped him to identify a single word on the scroll: “porphyras,” an ancient Greek word for “purple.”

The papyrus scroll – like hundreds of others discovered in the 1700s in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum – is still unopened. It’s very fragile and would fall apart if anyone tried to unroll it, so reading even a single letter seemed impossible.

But now, CT scan technology, also called “virtual unwrapping,” has improved so much that it has become possible to see what’s inside the scrolls without actually touching them – and AI has proved to be the icing on the cake.

The Vesuvius Challenge – in which the winning student is a participant – is a contest launched earlier in 2023 that offers money to anyone who can use AI to help decipher researchers’ scans, some of which still seemed empty of any symbols to the naked eye.

First, contestant Casey Handmer won $10,000 for finding substantial evidence of ink within the unopened scrolls. Handmer then wrote a blog post detailing his discovery, and his insights led directly to Farritor’s findings.

Farrirot created a machine-learning algorithm that identified ten legible letters on a small segment of parchment. The initiators of the Vesuvius Challenge – researchers from the University of Kentucky – promptly gifted the student $40,000.

“Luke Farritor, a contestant of the Vesuvius Challenge, became the first person in two millennia to see an entire word from within an unopened scroll this August,” the project announced.

Soon after Farritor’s discovery, Youssef Nader, a biorobotics researcher, independently identified the same word, “porphyras.” He won the second-place prize of $10,000.

The Vesuvius Challenge is still ongoing. A grand prize of $700,000 will be awarded to the first contestant to read four passages of at least 140 characters. And there’s progress – Nader’s model generated a new image where many more letters are now visible.

The Herculaneum papyri, ancient scrolls housed in the library of a private villa near Pompeii, were buried and carbonized by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. For almost 2,000 years, this lone surviving library from antiquity was buried underground under 20 meters of volcanic mud. In the 1700s, they were excavated by archeologists.

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