What you need to know
- A computer science student deciphered a single word from the Herculaneum scrolls using AI.
- The model was trained on an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070.
- The Herculaneum scrolls are heavily charred, making them almost impossible to decipher.
The NVIDIA 1070 may not be one of the best graphics cards anymore, but it managed to earn one scientist $40,000. Luke Farritor, a computer science undergrad at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and former SpaceX intern, used the graphics card to decipher ancient Roman scrolls, which earned him a pretty penny for completing the Vesuvius Challenge. Nat Friedman, the CEO of GitHub, organized the challenge to drive historical breakthroughs using technology.
The Herculaneum scrolls look more like a piece of ash than ancient scrolls, which is exactly the problem. The artifact is so heavily damaged that it's practically impossible to read. X-rays provide some insight, but the resulting images are difficult to interpret due to the ink on the Herculaneum scrolls appearing similar to the burned pages.
The AI model deciphered the word πορφυρας (or porphyras) which means either "purple" or purple dye used in clothing. Discovering that word alone earned Farritor $40,000.
Looking at the charred remains of the Herculaneum scrolls, it's impressive that anything of value can be deciphered. Others have earned smaller prizes of $10,000 for confirming the appearance of πορφυρας (or porphyras) and demonstrating that "significant amounts of ink were waiting to be discovered within the unopened scrolls," as explained by NVIDIA.
Now that a single word has been deciphered, the next challenge is to find passages that are 144 characters long. That figure was chosen to match the original length of a tweet, though X (formerly Twitter) now allows longer posts. Anyone who retrieves four distinct passages from the scrolls will earn a prize of $700,000.
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Sean Endicott brings nearly a decade of experience covering Microsoft and Windows news to Windows Central. He joined our team in 2017 as an app reviewer and now heads up our day-to-day news coverage. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at firstname.lastname@example.org.