This College Student Used AI To Solve A 2,000-Year-Old Puzzle

His accomplishment earned widespread praise and a cool $40,000. This College Student Used AI To Solve A 2,000-Year-Old Puzzle National Science Foundation News/YouTube screenshot

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Cracking codes and deciphering dead languages has historically required painstaking work by a team of experts. And while it’s still not an easy task, artificial intelligence is here to help.

That’s what one student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln discovered when he took part in a competition to figure out what an ancient Roman scroll had to say.

A fateful text

At a party one night, Luke Farritor said he received a text message bearing the image of one of the passages in the papyrus scroll, which had been partially burned when a volcano erupted in 79 AD.

Using his own AI-powered program, he was able to figure out one of the words — porphyras — written on the scroll.

He said he was “freaked out a little bit” and reacted to the discovery by “jumping up and down, yelling, screaming.”

“Porphyras” is a Greek term meaning “purple” and represents the first word decoded from the so-called Herculaneum scrolls. And Farritor received $40,000 for his service.

A difficult task

While other ancient texts have been a bit easier to decode, these scrolls have proven especially tough in large part due to the damage caused by the volcanic eruption.

Brent Seales is a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, which provided the prize money through its Vesuvius Challenge, and explained why the breakthrough is so noteworthy.

He said that he’s been trying to decipher the scrolls for about 20 years, but they have always been “something that people said you would never be able to read because it’s too hard to extract the text.”

After capturing an X-ray scan of the text in 2002 and releasing an even clearer image in 2019, Seales opened up the challenge to the general public. There’s still a $1 million grand prize available.

Chris Agee
Chris Agee October 18th, 2023
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