Many people have heard at some point in their educational careers that in 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted and completely buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum that were located at the foot of the volcano. Vesuvius is located adjacent to the present Italian city Naples.
What most people are unaware of is that during excavations of Herculaneum in 1752 a building was discovered that contained ancient books, or more accurately, papyrus scrolls. Unfortunately the heat from the lava flow had reduced these scrolls to carbonized lumps. For the last two hundred years and more scholars have attempted to unroll these carbonized scrolls and read their text. The painstaking work has only been minimally successful and mostly they’ve managed to find a small amount of text while basically destroying the scrolls.
But now modern medical imaging technology and advanced machine vision and machine learning techniques have combined to produce a possible way to read these ancient books. Using x-ray tomography images that look through the burned books can help identify layers where ink appears on the papyrus. Combining this with computer mapping of the ink locations the scroll can be “virtually unrolled” to reveal the text on the ancient remnant. The proof of concept has now been performed on a small bit of the scan. The challenge is to do this for the bulk of the document. It is a daunting task because of the terribly distorted shape of the scrolls.
Now a million dollar prize has been offered for any silicon valley type who is savvy enough to take the scans and turn it into a readable text.
For most people this is meaningless. Interest in even the books written a few years ago pales in comparison to watching a “TikTok” video of some vapid “influencer” describing her workout routine or grapefruit-papaya diet or other earth-shaking events. These old arcane texts have no bearing on their lives. And the scrolls currently unearthed are the works of an unimportant Roman philosopher. But it is believed that the rest of the unexcavated building is the repository of a very large private library that may contain many lost works by the best classical authors of Greece and Rome. The lost tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides and the comedies of Aristophanes and lost histories that we currently only know the names of would be immensely interesting to scholars and also people like me who find remarkable relevance in these testaments from thousands of years ago.
So the fact that finally there seems to be some real progress on this project that has gone on for centuries, I find fascinating. But my skeptical nature also forbids me from allowing unbounded enthusiasm to blind me to the likely outcome; failure.
So I share this with you, my readers, to let you know what I find to be the real progress that “AI” can provide to the world. Not ChatGPT which just automates the nitwittery found on TikTok but instead the brute force restoration of books that were burned to a crisp by a volcanic eruption almost two thousand years ago. A computer program guided by state of the art imaging technology plucking lost works from antiquity out of a pile of ashes. That’s magic.