A team of three students won $700,000 this week for using artificial intelligence to read passages from an ancient papyrus scroll.
The document is one of the more than 800 scrolls known as the Herculaneum papyri that were carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Researchers discovered the trove of texts in the 18th century, but attempts to read them proved futile: Unrolling them by hand only caused them to fall apart.
That’s where the Vesuvius Challenge comes in. Since it launched last year, researchers around the world have been competing to decipher scans of one of the scrolls without ever actually touching it. The prize-winning team, announced on Monday, identified over 2,000 of the text’s Greek letters.
“It’s been an incredibly rewarding journey,” Youssef Nader, one of the winners, tells the Guardian’s Ian Sample. “The adrenaline rush is what kept us going. It was insane. It meant working 20-something hours a day. I didn’t know when one day ended and the next day started.”
The scrolls were discovered in Herculaneum, an ancient Roman city destroyed by Vesuvius’ eruption, in a villa that may have been owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Nobody has tried to physically unroll them since the 19th century. As Marchant wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2018, the Herculaneum papyri are “the only intact library known from the classical world, an unprecedented cache of ancient knowledge.”
Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, and two entrepreneurs, Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross, launched the Vesuvius Challenge in March 2023, offering more than $1 million in prize money for reaching a series of milestones using “computer vision, machine learning and hard work.”
The organizers released high-resolution CT scans of the scrolls and explained the contest’s rules: To win the $700,000 grand prize, participants would need to decipher at least 85 percent of four passages, each of which should be at least 140 characters. A series of smaller prizes were also awarded throughout the year.
“It’s fun to take A.I. and build the future,” Friedman told Stephanie Hogan of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when the contest was announced. “But it’s also fun to use it to get a little window into the past.”
The winning team consists of Nader, an Egyptian PhD student in Germany; Julian Schilliger, a robotics student in Switzerland; and Luke Farritor, a computer science student in Nebraska. Their submission was “met with widespread amazement” by the review team of papyrologists, according to the Vesuvius Challenge’s announcement.
Farritor also won the challenge’s $40,000 “first letters” prize in October, when he deciphered the scroll’s first legible word: “porphyras,” which means “purple” in ancient Greek. Nader and Farritor began working together the following month and were joined by Schilliger shortly before the December 31 deadline, according to the Guardian.
The team ultimately trained machine-learning algorithms to decipher more than 2,000 characters—more than what was needed to win the grand prize. According to the Vesuvius Challenge’s announcement, contest organizers had initially estimated a less than 30 percent probability of anyone meeting the criteria.
“All this has been in this dreamlike digital world in my imagination before,” Friedman tells Time’s Will Henshall. “Seeing it on paper, rolling it up, it just made it so tangible.”
The team has deciphered about 5 percent of the scroll’s text. While that may not seem like much, it provides the “first real insight into its contents,” as the Guardian writes.
So what do these passages say? They appear to be a philosophical discussion of life’s pleasures, including music and food, though the papyrology team is still studying the results. “Scholars might call it a philosophical treatise,” writes the organizers in the announcement. “But it seems familiar to us, and we can’t escape the feeling that the first text we’ve uncovered is a 2,000-year-old blog post about how to enjoy life.”
University of Naples Federico II papyrologist Federica Nicolardi, who is one of the judges, tells Nature that the results are “incredible,” adding: “We were all completely amazed by the images they were showing.”
The contest organizers are already thinking ahead: In 2024, Vesuvius Challenge Stage 2 will award a grand prize to the first team to decipher 90 percent of four scrolls that have been scanned. Achieving this milestone would set the stage for reading many more of the Herculaneum papyri and other ancient texts.
“Some of these texts could completely rewrite the history of key periods of the ancient world,” Fowler tells Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance and Ellen Huet. “This is the society from which the modern Western world is descended.”