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AI deciphers part of an ancient scroll 2,000 years after Mount Vesuvius erupted

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What's old - really, really old - is new again. Part of a brittle scroll covered with ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago has been read for the first time.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Wow. This happened thanks to an international competition called the Vesuvius Challenge. The goal is to use advanced technology, including artificial intelligence, to read ancient texts. And this one contained musings about food, music and life's pleasures.

FADEL: The scroll, named Banana Boy due to its shape and size, is one of hundreds from a Roman villa thought to be owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law. Youssef Nader is a Berlin-based Ph.D. student studying artificial intelligence, and he was part of the winning team.

YOUSSEF NADER: The main challenge of the first letters was creating any sort of data because we could not get any sort of signals of life.

FADEL: With the help of machine learning, Nader says, it became simple trial and error.

NADER: Every model gets better examples than the one before until you have a model that really understands what the ink looks like and then is able to predict the ink everywhere.

FADEL: Ultimately, Nader and his college teammates from the U.S. and Switzerland deciphered at least 85% of the text, winning a grand prize of $700,000.

INSKEEP: Brent Seales is a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky and co-created the Vesuvius Challenge after working for about two decades to decode artifacts.

BRENT SEALES: The library is the crucible of human experience. And what I found out is that many of the works from antiquity were going to be left out because they're too hard to digitize.

FADEL: And Seales says the secrets of more Vesuvius scrolls like Banana Boy could soon be fully understood. He expects this entire scroll to be read within a year and the rest of the scroll soon thereafter.

SEALES: These people wrote because they wanted to be an author who had readers. And believe it or not, 2,000 years later, we are the readers.

INSKEEP: Which is awesome and gives an entirely new meaning to the idea of scrolling. The winners will be celebrated next month at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMINE KONTE'S "MAMA TAMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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