Home / Funny / Viral / Vesuvius Challenge Offers 1 Million To Whoever Deciphers Charred Scrolls From Pompeii


One day long ago in 79 AD, the volcano known as Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering the city below with volcanic ash. Pompeii disappeared, people suffocated under the ash, buildings disappeared, un-excavated for hundreds of years.

Historians now regard Pompeii as a precious time-his capsule of ancient life, as well preserved  as the fateful day. Among the ruins, researchers found a charred papyrus scroll known as the Herculaneum Papyrus. In the last 275 years, no one has been able to decipher the script. A new competition, known as the "Vesuvius Challenge," offers up to $1 million to anyone who can eventually read the scroll using AI technology.

The Herculaneum papyri were found in 1750 in a villa once owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law. The old library was blackened and charred from the heat of the eruption. Since their discovery, many of the charred scrolls have been lost.

The remaining 600 continue to  puzzle  researchers. What is on  extremely thin scrolls? New technology is allowing researchers to look inside them for the first time, and this has raised hopes that the mystery of their contents can finally be solved by computer scientists, rather than archaeologists. This task was made possible by a  discovery by Dr. Brent Seals from the University of Kentucky in 2015.

He developed a technique called "virtual unfolding" which he tested on the En Gedi scroll found in the Dead Sea area. Using X-ray tomography and computer vision, he digitally "unwrapped" the charred, rolled scroll. This is in itself  a complex numerical and mathematical problem. The thick ink contrasted on the X-ray, making the text smooth and legible. However, it will be more difficult to decipher the ink text on the Herculaneum papyri. The ink is made of carbon, which means x-rays cannot easily see text on carbonised paper.

A team led by Dr. Seals recently used a particle accelerator to scan two scrolls and several fragments of  Italian documents. The 4-8 µm resolution with 16-bit density data per voxel is ideal for machine learning to find subtle surface patterns indicative of  ancient ink writing. Earlier this year, their machine learning model recognized the ink on high-resolution scans, even penetrating multiple layers of papyrus. The summoning of Mount Vesuvius  is intended to expand the AI's efforts to finally unravel the mysteries of the scrolls.

The prize pool is funded by entrepreneur Daniel Gross and former GitHub CEO Nat Friedman. The Grand Prize is $700,000 for a team that uses AI scanning to reach 31st under certain conditions. Small Prize. $100,000 awaits a team that will find the ink using "firm data" from Seals' team's first find.

Prizes over $200,000  will also be announced at a later date. For those who want to try themselves, data is available online to get started. While each winner will surely be thrilled to receive their prize, the whole world will benefit when these long-lost texts can finally be read.

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