A team of three students won a $700,000 prize for using artificial intelligence to read a 2,000-year-old scroll that was charred during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The scroll, believed to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, was preserved but unreadable due to the damage sustained when Herculaneum, the Roman town where it was found, was destroyed alongside Pompeii. This innovative application of AI has been hailed as a “revolution” in Greek philosophy, potentially unlocking new insights into the works of Philodemus, a Greek philosopher of the Epicurean school, who is thought to have resided in Herculaneum.
The AI model, developed by Youssef Nader, a PhD student in Berlin, Luke Farritor, a SpaceX intern and student, and Julian Schillinger, a Swiss Robotics student, was able to decipher 2,000 Greek characters from the scanned scrolls by employing pattern recognition. This technology has revealed discussions on the sources of pleasure in life, including music and food, in the ancient texts. The Vesuvius Challenge organizers hope that this breakthrough can lead to the reading of 90% of all four scanned scrolls within the year, and potentially all 800 scrolls discovered in the 18th century in a villa’s library in Herculaneum, offering unprecedented access to ancient Roman philosophical texts.