College Student Uses AI to Read Scrolls That Were Illegible for 2,000 Years
Technology has paved the way for artificial intelligence (AI) to become a dominant force in modern times. AI has the astounding ability to accomplish tasks that humans have never been capable of.
While the uses for AI are seemingly endless, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student has found a new way to utilize the technological tool. Luke Farritor recently used AI to help him read scrolls that have been indecipherable for 2,000 years. His discovery has astounded researchers who have long searched for a way to decipher the writing on the ancient scroll.
A College Student Unlocked a 2,000-Year-Old Mystery
Luke Farritor did something that scientists have been unable to do for centuries.
The student was part of a worldwide competition to translate ancient Roman scrolls that were dated back to A.D. 79. The scrolls were significantly damaged by a volcanic eruption that occurred thousands of years ago, and researchers have been stumped on how to decode the impaired artifact ever since. Fortunately, the 21-year-old scholar had a plan.
Farritor’s AI Program Made a Breakthrough
Farritor proved that sometimes all you need is a fresh perspective to solve an age-old problem. The quick-thinking computer science major used his wits to create an artificial intelligence program that was able to decode the meaning of the Greek letters written on papyrus.
The student received a text message containing a photo of one of the scrolls one evening while he was at a party. He took a moment to look over the image before uploading it to his AI program. In typical 21-year-old fashion, Farritor returned to the party and didn’t think much of the Roman scrolls. Later that night, he checked his phone on his way back to his dorm room.
A Complete Word Was Revealed on the Scrolls
Miraculously, Farritor’s AI program had decoded nearly a dozen letters from the photo of the charred Roman scrolls.
After 2,000 years of the scrolls being illegible, Farritor couldn’t believe his good fortune. “I was completely amazed,” he said. “I freaked out a little bit, jumping up and down, yelling, screaming.” With the help of Farritor’s AI program, experts known as papyrologists were able to translate the Greek letters into a word. “Porphyras” was written on one of the scrolls, which means “purple” in Greek.
The College Student Received a Handsome Reward
Farritor’s discovery was prompted by The Vesuvius Challenge, “a project created by University of Kentucky computer science professor Brent Seales to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls.” If Farritor hadn’t signed up to join the competition, he may have never unearthed the hidden letters of the ancient Greek scrolls.
Farritor’s ingenuity paid off and he was awarded $40,000 for his contribution. He has also been credited as being the first person in 2,000 years to accurately decode a portion of the scrolls. That accolade will surely bode well on his post-grad resume.
History in the Making
Seales was impressed with the college student’s resourcefulness and praised his intellect at a recent news conference.
He said that the scrolls are “something that people said you would never be able to read because it’s too hard to extract the text,” before adding, “And yet today we’re talking about exactly that.” The significance of Farritor’s discovery is astronomical. “Some 95 percent of the material from the classical period is lost, so we just don’t have anything,” said Seales while he announced the content. “And yet we know it was one of the most important philosophical periods of humanity. It’s an era shrouded in mystery for which we’ve lost most of the material.”
Many of the Scrolls Are Too Damaged to Open
In A.D. 79, a library near Pompeii was burned and buried under volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted.
Inside the library were ancient Herculaneum scrolls. The library was discovered in the 1750s and more than 600 of the charred scrolls were retrieved from the site. Due to the condition of the scrolls, historians were convinced that unraveling them would cause them to fall apart.
Will the Contents of the Scrolls Ever Be Known?
Today, many of the scrolls still remain rolled in place, just as they were 2,000 years ago. However, they look a lot different than they once did in centuries past.
Black with ash and char, the scrolls are reminiscent of burnt logs. Historians have hypothesized that the scrolls could have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Regardless of their condition, the ancient scrolls are a masterful piece of history.
Researchers Have Been Trying to Learn More About the Scrolls for Years
The fascination surrounding the scrolls has been mounting with each passing year. In 2002, Seales and a team of scientists created a computer program with X-ray-like technology that was able to see inside the rolled up scrolls.
The program would scan the documents in hopes of offering clues to what was written inside the ancient relics. However, the technology was not savvy enough to produce the outcome that Seales had hoped.
Seales Has Developed Various Programs to Read the Scrolls
By 2009, Seales paid a visit to the Institut de France to conduct research on some of the Herculaneum scrolls.
He attempted to scan one with his program, but the ink on the Herculaneum scrolls was made of charcoal and water, making it impossible for the device to read on the papyrus. In 2016, Seales began building a program that could identify any kind of ink on ancient documents.
Progress Was Being Made
By 2019, Seales had gotten a clear scan of a scroll and his team received more funding to continue with their research.
Though his efforts were valiant, he still needed input from others who were equally as eager to decode the ancient scrolls. Seales created the Vesuvius Challenge in March 2023 with the promise of $1 million to anyone who was able to decode portions of the scrolls.
Finally, Things Started to Make Sense
Seales and his team worked tirelessly for decades to gain a better understanding of what the ancient scrolls had written on them.
Farritor would become one of the 1,500 people to enter the competition in hopes of making a historical advancement and possibly earning some prize money along the way. Another participant was a man from California named Casey Handmer, who eventually teamed up with Farritor to put their knowledge to good use. Together, they began to notice parts of the letters appearing on the AI program.
Farritor Is Determined to Leave a Lasting Impression
Farritor received a portion of the prize money but the challenge is offering an additional $700,000 to anyone who can decode four complete passages from the scrolls.
Farritor is continuing his quest to study more scrolls, but in the meantime, he has big plans for how he’ll spend his $40,000 reward, “I’m going to buy more computers,” he said before adding, “and win the grand prize.”