The uncanny ability of artificial intelligence to spot patterns in large amounts of data could finally unravel some of the thorniest mysteries of the ancient world. Researchers working with companies such as IBM and Google’s Deepmind are on the brink of deciphering ancient texts once thought unreadable – and even ‘cracking’ an unknown language from almost two millennia before the birth of Christ. AI allows researchers to sift through images far faster than human beings, and the techniques could answer fundamental questions about the history of language and potentially uncover lost works by Greek and Roman writers.
Cracking an unknown language. A mysterious unknown language, ‘Linear A’ discovered on tablets in Crete in 1900 has never been deciphered – but AI might be able to crack the code. Among the world’s most famous examples of unknown languages, stones and tablets written in the strange ‘LInear A’ language is considered the main script used by the Minoan civilization, a Bronze Age kingdom led by King Minos.
The 1,400 tablets in Linear A date back as far as 1800BC and, despite many efforts, have never been deciphered – another, newer script found on tablets on the island, Linear B, was cracked in 1953. The breakthrough came thanks to researchers realizing that repeated words in the language might be place names on the island and that Linear B might be similar to ancient Greek.
But Linear A poses a far tougher challenge, as the ‘progenitor language’ is completely unknown – and no text in the language has ever been translated. Arthur Evans, the researcher who found the tablets, said that Linear A is among the earliest writing to be discovered and that its resemblance to pictures shows that it has an essential place in the evolution of human language. Researchers from MIT and Google’s AI lab Deepmind have used AI to automatically translate texts in Linear B – the first time this has been done, sparking hopes that AI could someday unravel texts in Linear A. Multiple researchers are using techniques such as data mining and natural language processing to unravel patterns within Linear AI. A team from MIT and Deepmind are working on a new system that can decipher lost languages by exploring the relationships between different languages.
Reading an ancient library. The Herculaneum scrolls were discovered in ruins near Pompeii – astonishingly fragile carbonized scrolls preserved in the wake of the volcano’s eruption in 76AD. Herculaneum was buried under scalding mud in the eruption, and the scrolls were found in 1750 inside a luxurious villa thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Unlike other libraries from the period, which had decomposed from contact with air, the scrolls were preserved – but have thus far been unreadable. Artificial intelligence could finally offer a way for researchers to read passages from the scrolls, which have remained undeciphered for almost two millennia after the eruption. Research spearheaded by Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky and with a cash prize offered by Silicon Valley investors uses AI models to decipher the scrolls. Computer science students used computer tomography (similar to X-ray scans) and artificial intelligence to ‘read’ marks on a papyrus scroll.
The Herculaneum Scrolls are the only library to have survived from classical times, and researchers hope there may be undiscovered works by poets and playwrights of ancient Greece and Rome. Described as a ‘potential treasure trove,’ a computer science student unlocked the first word – ‘purple’ – from one scroll, winning $40,000 in the Vesuvius Challenge. ‘This word is our first dive into an unopened ancient book, evocative of royalty, wealth, and even mockery. What will the context show? Pliny the Elder explores ‘purple’ in his ‘natural history’ as a production process for Tyrian purple from shellfish,’ Professor Seales said. ‘The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus was mocked as he was clothed in purple robes before crucifixion. ‘What this particular scroll discusses is still unknown, but I believe it will soon be revealed.’
The mystery of the Nazca lines. The Nazca lines, showing animals and strange humanoids, including one described as ‘an astronaut,’ were first found in 1927 – but no one has explained their purpose. Conspiracy theorists suggest that the huge lines spanning the Nazca plateau might have been created by aliens. Scientists suggest that they were most likely used as pathways for processions, and their huge scale is so that they are visible to the Gods. Now, AI is turbo-charging the process of discovering new Nazca lines, which were carved into the landscape of Peru by people between 500BC and 500AD.
Researchers from Yamagata University have now speeded up the process of discovering new Nazca lines by 21 times using ‘deep learning’ in partnership with IBM – and are now using AI to comb for ‘geoglyphs’ missed in previous searches. The researchers are racing against time as erosion and climate change are putting the geoglyphs at risk.
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