The Vesuvius Challenge, launched by the University of Kentucky, offers a unique opportunity for AI to delve into the pages of history, deciphering X-ray images of ancient charred scrolls from Herculaneum.
Recently, an impressive array of thousands of these X-ray images have been unbarred to AI exploration. Akin to unlocking an ancient secret, the objective is to interpret these cryptic, carbonized scrolls. The images depict texts that have been remarkably preserved, albeit in a difficult to read state, following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. These precious scrolls, buried in the aftermath of the volcanic event, were discovered centuries later in the 18th century amidst the remnants of a luxurious villa, presumed to belong to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law.
The Power of AI
The brilliance of AI was put to the test as it attempted to detect subtle texture variations in the X-ray images, which are almost invisible to the human eye. Its goal? To reveal ink strokes and help decode these ancient scripts. It's worth noting that very few ancient texts of this kind have survived to the present day, making this endeavor even more significant.
Among numerous participants, two students notably distinguished themselves in this challenge. Luke Farritor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Youssef Nader from the Free University of Berlin reaped first prizes. Their success was marked by the identification of the word “πορϕυρας” (purple), the first complete word to be decoded from the scripts. This term, in the times of ancient Rome, could signify high-ranking robes or status.
Farritor's win was the result of employing a machine learning model specifically trained on a ‘crackle' pattern present on the scroll. His model progressively refined its performance as it identified more of these crackle patterns and ink strokes. On the other hand, Nader's technique involved training the AI on shapes in the images which resembled letters. Both methods culminated in the identification of the word ‘purple' and some surrounding letters.
The Vesuvius Challenge offers a considerable main prize of ,000 for successfully reading four or more passages from a scroll. If these scrolls could be read without being physically opened, they could potentially provide invaluable insights into life and learning in the first century. These underexplored documents hold a wealth of information, just waiting to be discovered.