History has been made by an undergraduate student who was the first to use AI technology to read part of a 2,000-year-old scroll.
University of Nebraska student, Luke Farritor, took part in the Vesuvius Challenge and won the $40,000 prize.
The competition called on participants to use the emerging technology of AI to uncover the contents of the rolled-up, ancient scripts.
The papyrus scrolls and their mysterious contents were buried in the Roman city of Herculaneum in 79 CE after Mount Vesuvius erupted.
This was the same eruption that destroyed Pompei.
After the somma-stratovolcano event they were buried under 20 meters (65ft) of mud slides.
The scrolls were fossilized and turned into carbon.
They were first excavated in 1752 after 1,700 years.
“While they were in some ways preserved by the eruption, they were so fragile that they would turn to dust if mishandled,” the website said.
On Thursday (12 October) the Vesuvius Challenge researchers held a press conference.
During the meeting they announced that 21-year-old Farritor, a computer-science major, had won the prize of $40,000.
The groundbreaking undergraduate had successfully read more than 10 characters in a 4-square-centimeter area.
His work was inspired by a previous contestant, Casey Handmer, who was the first person to find convincing evidence of ink.
This followed on from Professor Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky’s EduceLab.
He imaged the scrolls in a particle accelerator to generate a 3D CT-scans at resolutions as high as 4 µm.
Using the images, Farritor developed a machine-learning algorithm according to Nature.
These detected a number of letters on the scroll.
The first word he discovered was “Porphyras”, meaning “purple”.
Farritor became the first contestant to submit the required number of legible letters in the competition. During the press conference, he shared his excitement about the initial moment of spotting the letters.
The prize winner talked about his excitement.
Farritor first made the discovery one night and said he needed to “improve” the photo.
“I was like… let’s keep going until it got to something that looks a lot like the image you’re seeing today,” he said.
“I saw these letters and I just completely freaked out. I freaked out, almost fell over, almost cried,” Farritor said.
“I took a screenshot. I immediately sent it to JP Posma, who sent it to everyone else. I sent it to my family. My mom called and she was like, ‘Hey, like this is the first thing that you sent me that really looks like the letters. This is really cool,'” he explained.
Second-place winner, Youssef Nader, discovered the word in the same area at a later date and was awarded the $10,000 cash prize.
And they aren’t the only students who are having their lives changed by AI.
One 16-year-old AI founder has a startup valued at eight figures and is skipping college after debuting a beta version of her AI software in 2021 and raising more than $450,000 from multiple backers.
Papyrologist at the University of Naples, Federica Nicolardi, was a member of the academic committee reviewing Farritor’s findings.
She told Nature, that the scrolls were so difficult to decipher because they are “all crumpled and crushed”.
Nicolardi said that Farritor’s discovery was “a dream” that she can “actually see something from the inside of a scroll.”
Thea Sommerschield, a historian of ancient Greece and Rome at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, explained that Farritor’s discovery could “revolutionize our knowledge of ancient history and literature.”
There are still several unread scrolls.
The next stage of the Vesuvius Challenge asks researchers to read four passages in the two scanned scrolls.
The prize: $700,000.