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Unlocking history with AI

Unlocking history with AI  - image credits
Unlocking history with AI - image credits

The Vesuvius Challenge, initiated in March 2023 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Daniel Gross and Nat Friedman, aimed to leverage artificial intelligence in deciphering texts from papyrus scrolls that were carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This challenge represents a unique intersection of historical preservation and modern technology, aligning with Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, by emphasizing the importance of protecting the world's cultural and natural heritage.


Youssef Nader, an Egyptian Ph.D. student in Berlin, Luke Farritor, a college student and SpaceX intern from Nebraska, and Julian Schilliger, a Swiss robotics student at ETH Zürich, were awarded a grand prize of $700,000 for their collaborative effort in developing a deep learning program. This program successfully decoded texts from a papyrus scroll, achieving legibility of 85% of characters in certain passages. Their achievement stands out as their submission was markedly more legible than others, with many competitors achieving around 30%.

The content of the decoded texts touches upon topics such as music, food, and the enjoyment of life's pleasures, offering a glimpse into the cultural fabric of the ancient world. The scrolls, discovered in Herculaneum, a city also buried by Vesuvius' eruption, were part of a collection found 275 years ago in a villa that might have belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law. This collection is notable as the only intact library from the Classical World, contrasting with the more durable clay tablets from ancient Assyria and Babylon.

The challenge capitalized on high-resolution CT scans performed at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford. These scans provided detailed images of the scrolls, which were made available to participants eager to apply AI technologies to decode them.

The success of the Vesuvius Challenge underscores the potential of collaborative efforts in advancing knowledge and preserving cultural heritage. It highlights the role of technological innovation in enhancing our understanding of history and reinforces the message that a proactive, engaged global community can achieve significant progress in the pursuit of sustainable development and cultural preservation. This feat aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, by promoting the safeguarding of the world's cultural and natural heritage.



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