AI resurrects 2,000-year-old writings in $1 million Vesuvius Challenge

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AI resurrects 2,000-year-old writings in $1 million Vesuvius Challenge

February 7, 2024 -

An ancient scroll, completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material, is displayed at the Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta) The Vesuvius Challenge recently revealed that parts of a scroll have been deciphered.

An ancient scroll, completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material, is displayed at the Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta) The Vesuvius Challenge recently revealed that parts of a scroll have been deciphered.

An ancient scroll, completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material, is displayed at the Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta) The Vesuvius Challenge recently revealed that parts of a scroll have been deciphered.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly two thousand years ago, it killed thousands and buried two of the Roman Empire’s most prosperous cities under a mass of ash and rock that stretched as high as sixty feet in some places. Subsequent excavations uncovered the statues of men, women, and children whose bodies were covered in ash, leaving behind something akin to a plaster mold of their last moments.

However, the final poses of the volcano’s victims were not the only things preserved for the better part of two millennia.

An ancient library was also discovered, containing more than eight hundred scrolls that were carbonized by the eruption. And though they remain impossible to open without destroying them, technological advances have recently enabled us to see for the first time what a small portion of that library contained.

A new tome from two millennia ago

The efforts to read the ancient scrolls took a leap forward when one was scanned with the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator at the Institut de France. A group led by Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales then launched the Vesuvius Challenge, offering the international community the chance to win more than $1 million in prizes by finding a way to decipher the text from the scan and make the document legible once again.

The group announced this week that a team of three—Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger—took home the prize of $700,000 for completing not only the required four passages of 140 characters each but also an additional eleven columns of text beyond it.

The group used machine learning—a form of AI—as the backbone of the recreations but were careful to put several guardrails in place, like running the code independently, getting multiple submissions of the same text, and looking for individual data points of ink rather than letter or language patterns to help ensure that the results were legitimate and accurate.

The final product was a legible recreation of a previously unknown Epicurean text arguing about the proper understanding and role of pleasure.

And while that particular brand of scholarship may not be everyone’s favorite, the hope is that these technological developments can eventually be replicated and enhanced to decipher the other eight hundred scrolls, as well as the litany of other texts that remain undiscovered at these ancient sites.

Those behind the Vesuvius Challenge had an ambitious goal—one they thought had a 70 percent chance of failing—when they first set out to decipher that first bit of text. However, what seemed little more than a dream a year ago is now a fraction of what they hope to accomplish by the end of 2024.

And yet those new goals are no less realistic than the previous because they can take the tools they’ve now developed and build something even better.

Our lives with God can work in a similar way sometimes.

Faithful over a little

It can be easy to grow dissatisfied with what the Lord has called us to do, longing for something bigger or seemingly more important. But oftentimes the reason we are called to smaller tasks or less glamorous ways of serving him is that we have not yet laid the groundwork necessary to be able to sustain and support anything more.

One of Christ’s final lessons to his disciples before going to the cross was on the need to be faithful over a little before God can set us over much (Matthew 25:21, 23). That truth is just as relevant today as it was nearly two thousand years ago.

After all, there’s no unimportant work in God’s kingdom, and whether your present calling is primarily preparation for something more or a key part of what God wants to accomplish through you going forward shouldn’t matter in the moment. Just be faithful and leave the rest up to him.

That is our calling as Christians.

Will you live it out today?

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