- An ancient Greek philosopher’s musings about “pleasure” have been rediscovered thanks to AI.
- The passage is part of an ancient set of scrolls known as the Herculaneum papyri.
- The team used a combination of AI technology and 3D mapping to decipher the text.
An ancient Greek philosopher’s never-before-seen musings on life’s pleasures have been rediscovered with the help of AI.
The passage is part of a set of ancient scrolls known as the Herculaneum papyri.
The scrolls, believed to be part of a vast library housed in a villa belonging to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, were buried during the volcanic eruption that preserved Pompeii. The literature has been considered unreadable as it was reduced to chunks of blackened carbon by the volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in AD 79.
Last year, Luke Farritor, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was the first to read a word from one of the ancient Herculaneum scrolls.
He was awarded $40,000 for the breakthrough discovery as part of the Vesuvius Challenge — a competition with $1,000,000 in prizes for people who can unlock the secrets of these ancient scrolls using modern technology.
The newly translated passage is a combined effort from Farritor, Youssef Nader, and Julian Schilliger. The team used a combination of AI technology and 3D mapping to decipher letter shapes in a small section of the scrolls, picking up the $700,000 grand prize in the process.
Leveraging AI to decipher the scrolls
Scholars have speculated that the ancient library could contain significant works of literature with the potential to transform our understanding of the ancient world.
However, due to the damage from the volcano, the scrolls are highly delicate and have proved almost impossible to unroll without causing further damage. Previous efforts have yielded limited success, with some of the scrolls partially damaged during attempts to decipher them.
The Vesuvius Challenge — a fresh effort to translate the ancient scrolls — was launched by Nat Friedman, a tech executive and former CEO of GitHub, in 2023.
Friedman became obsessed with the scrolls during the lockdown and hypothesized that AI might be able to detect patterns missed by humans, Bloomberg reported.
The newly translated passages are thought to originate from the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus and contain his thoughts on “music, food, and how to enjoy life’s pleasures,” Friedman said in a post on X.
“Ten months ago, we launched the Vesuvius Challenge to solve the ancient problem of the Herculaneum Papyri, a library of scrolls that were flash-fried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD,” Friedman also said in a post on X.
“Today we are overjoyed to announce that our crazy project has succeeded. After 2000 years, we can finally read the scrolls,” he added.