Artificial intelligence (AI) has played a pivotal role in unraveling the musings of a Greek philosopher, providing never-before-seen insights from ancient papyrus scrolls buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2000 years ago.
The Vesuvius Challenge, awarding a grand prize of $700,000, witnessed a triumphant breakthrough as a team, comprising Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger, harnessed the power of 3D mapping and AI techniques. This innovative approach allowed the detection of ink and the deciphering of letter shapes within segments of scrolls known as the Herculaneum papyri, digitally scanned for this purpose.
The winning submission met the criteria by deciphering more than 85 percent of characters in four passages, each consisting of 140 characters, and further included another 11 columns of text, totaling more than 2000 characters. This remarkable achievement unveils the thoughts of Philodemus, a Greek philosopher believed to have been the resident philosopher at the library housing the Herculaneum papyri.
Philodemus’s focus on how the scarcity or abundance of food and other goods impacts pleasure aligns with his Epicurean school of philosophy, which considers pleasure as life’s primary goal. Intriguingly, the deciphered text also suggests a subtle critique of the Stoic school of philosophy for its perceived silence on the subject of pleasure.
Michael McOsker of University College London, uninvolved in the discovery, expresses optimism about the potential impact on our understanding of ancient philosophy. “I think it’s going to be a huge boon to our knowledge of ancient philosophy, just gigantic – a staggering amount of new text,” he remarks.
As the Vesuvius Challenge continues, its 2024 goals aim to address the scalability of 3D scanning and digital analysis techniques without inflating costs. Currently priced at $100 per square centimeter, these techniques could cost between $1 million and $5 million to virtually unroll an entire scroll. With 800 scrolls awaiting deciphering, the challenge remains formidable.
McOsker emphasizes the diversity of content within the scrolls, anticipating not only Epicurean philosophy but also the potential discovery of Stoic texts, historical accounts, and Latin literature. He notes the excitement surrounding the possibility of uncovering complete works of authors like Ennius or Livius Andronicus, early Roman writers whose works did not survive the test of time.
The intersection of AI technology and historical preservation in the Vesuvius Challenge opens doors to a wealth of knowledge, promising to reshape our understanding of ancient philosophy while presenting a glimpse into the challenges and possibilities that lie ahead in the world of archaeological and technological exploration.