Student Wins $40K Prize for Using AI to Decipher 2,000-Year-Old Scroll in Vesuvius Challenge

In this post:

  • 21-Year-Old Wins $40K with AI: Student deciphers ancient scroll using AI, revolutionizing archaeology.
  • AI Unlocks 2,000-Year-Old Secrets: Luke Farritor’s groundbreaking use of technology changes history.
  • Vesuvius Challenge Continues: More scrolls await decoding, promising a new era in ancient scholarship.

In a remarkable feat of technology and ingenuity, Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has won the prestigious “First Letters” prize of $40,000 in the Vesuvius Challenge. The challenge, which tasks participants with leveraging modern technology to unlock the mysteries of ancient papyrus scrolls, has brought a significant breakthrough in archaeology and artificial intelligence.

The Vesuvius challenge unveiled

The Vesuvius Challenge is a competition dedicated to unraveling the secrets hidden within ancient papyrus scrolls from the Roman city of Herculaneum, which were preserved and fossilized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. These fragile scrolls have long eluded scholars due to their extreme sensitivity, making traditional reading methods impossible.

The challenge was initiated to use cutting-edge technology to decipher the scrolls without damaging them. Luke Farritor, inspired by the work of his fellow contestant Casey Handmer and research by Professor Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky’s EduceLab, rose to the occasion.

The triumph of artificial intelligence

Farritor’s achievement is attributed to his groundbreaking use of artificial intelligence (AI). He developed a machine-learning algorithm that enabled him to decipher and read more than 10 characters from a small 4-square-centimeter area of one of the ancient scrolls. The word he unveiled was “Porphyras,” meaning “purple,” according to the Vesuvius Challenge website.

The moment of discovery

During a press conference to announce his victory, Farritor recounted his excitement and astonishment upon spotting the ancient letters. He said, “I saw these letters and just completely freaked out. I freaked out, almost fell over, almost cried.”

He described the immediate reaction, saying, “I took a screenshot. I immediately sent it to JP Posma, who sent it to everyone else. I sent it to my family. My mom called, and she was like, ‘Hey, this is the first thing you sent me that looks like the letters. This is cool.'”

Persistence pays off

Farritor’s journey to decode the scroll was marked by dedication and perseverance. He initially discovered the word late one night but knew he needed to enhance the quality of the image. He said, “I was like… let’s keep going until it got to something that looks a lot like the image you’re seeing today.”

His commitment paid off, and he became the first contestant to submit the required number of legible letters, securing the coveted main prize. Youssef Nader, the second-place winner, also uncovered the same word in the scroll’s vicinity, earning him a $10,000 cash prize.

Unlocking the past

The significance of Farritor’s use of AI to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls cannot be overstated. These scrolls were considered too fragile to unfurl, and improper handling could cause them to dust. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples and an academic committee member reviewing Farritor’s findings, described the scrolls as “crazy” and “all crumpled and crushed.”

Dating back to 79 CE, these scrolls were preserved by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried the city of Herculaneum under over 65 feet of volcanic ash. The heat from the eruption transformed the papyrus scrolls into fossilized carbon chunks. It wasn’t until 1752 that the scrolls were finally excavated.

A revolution in scholarship

Nicolardi expressed her excitement, saying, “I can see something from the inside of a scroll.” She believes that papyrologists will soon be able to read the entire document, igniting a “great revolution” in ancient history and literature.

Thea Sommerschield, a historian specializing in ancient Greece and Rome at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, underscored the potential impact of this discovery. She stated, “This discovery could revolutionize our knowledge of ancient history and literature.”

The quest continues

While Farritor’s success is groundbreaking, many scrolls are still awaiting deciphering. To encourage further research, the Vesuvius Challenge has set a new goal: researchers must read four passages in two scanned scrolls to vie for the grand prize of $700,000. The competition continues to captivate the world, offering a tantalizing glimpse into the rich history concealed within these ancient scrolls.

As Luke Farritor’s achievement has demonstrated, the fusion of modern technology and ancient artifacts can unlock the mysteries of the past and reshape our understanding of history. The Vesuvius Challenge is a testament to the power of human innovation and the enduring allure of uncovering the secrets of antiquity.

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