Earlier this week, three students won a $700,000 prize for winning the Vesuvius Challengea competition that aims to decode the Herculaneum Papyri, a collection of papyrus scrolls that have been unreadable for centuries.
The students, Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger, had never met in person but were the first team to discover at least four readable passages in scrolls of 140 characters each (the length of just two tweets).
“I think this promises a very exciting future where seemingly impossible ideas become possible,” said Nader, a 27-year-old. PhD in Machine Learning. student at the Freie University of Berlin, told the Wall Street Journal. Farritor, 22, is a student at the University of Nebraska and Schilliger, 28, is a graduate student in robotics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, the Journal reported.
The scrolls were buried in the first century during the eruption of Vesuvius in the Villa of the Papyri – an Italian country estate that historians have linked to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. To date, approximately 800 manuscripts have been discovered at the site.
Some of these texts could completely rewrite the history of key periods of the ancient world, Robert Fowler, president of the Herculaneum Society, which raises awareness of the manuscripts, told Bloomberg. It is from this society that the modern Western world came.
And if their discovery could mark a turning point in human history, then their burial was a blessing in disguise. Unlike virtually all ancient texts which decay when exposed to air, the Herculaneum papyri were charred by the heat of volcanic debris and thus preserved, according to the Vesuvius Challenges website.
Three tech industry veterans — former Github CEO Nat Friedman, search engine Cue founder Daniel Gross and computer science professor Brent Seales — launched the competition.in March 2023. It is supported by a large number of entrepreneurs, investors and key figures in the technology industry.
This year’s winners built on Seales’ already-in-progress work, which used x-ray tomography and computer vision to virtually unwrap the rolls. From there, machine learning models can be used to identify the ink and ultimately decipher the words.
The passages that the winning team failed to decipher were likely written by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus and address “music, food, and enjoying life’s pleasures,” according to an article by Friedman on X. In the final section, he throws shade at unnamed people. ideological adversaries – perhaps the Stoics? — who “have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular,” Friedman explained.
Ten months ago we launched the Vesuvius Challenge to solve the ancient problem of the Herculaneum Papyri, a library of scrolls that were fried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Today we are delighted to announce that our crazy project was successful. . After 2000 pic.twitter.com/fihs9ADb48
The contest’s grand prize winners helped discover about 5 percent of a scroll, but the contest handed out more than 50 prizes last year, totaling more than $1 million, to teams who helped find the first letters parchments, helped detect ink, and developed open systems. source tools.
This year, the bar is even higher, even if the payouts are lower. The Vesuvius Challenge hopes that participants will help uncover approximately 90% of the first four scrolls. The winning team will receive approximately $100,000.
The founders of the Vesuvius Challenge hope to be able to open and read all 800 scrolls in the coming years.