$250K Prize Offered to Solve Puzzle of Roman Scrolls

Nat Friedman, the former CEO of GitHub, is part of a team that is offering $250,000 in prizes to see if anyone can use “machine learning and computer vision” to “resurrect an ancient library from the ashes” of Mount Vesuvius — in the form of well-preserved scrolls.

Known as the Herculaneum Papyri, the ancient scrolls were part of a library in a villa once owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. buried the library in 20 meters of hot mud and ash, but, in carbonizing the scrolls, it also preserved them.

The villa was discovered in 1750, by an Italian farmer digging a well, but early attempts to open the scrolls destroyed a number of them.

The competition’s website states that “the temptation to open them is great; if read, they would more than double the corpus of literature we have from antiquity.”

Despite the breakthrough of virtual unwrapping, which uses X-rays and allows scrolls to be digitally unrolled and read without physically opening them, more than 600 remaining scrolls remain unreadable.

According to the competition’s website, the problem with the Herculaneum Papyri scrolls is the ink is carbon-based, offering no X-ray contrast against the underlying carbon-based papyrus.

Friedman and his co-sponsor Daniel Gross are offering $150,000 to the first team to read a scroll by December 31, 2023. To win, at least four separate passages of continuous and plausible text, at least 140 characters long, must be read from the scrolls.

A $50,000 ink detection prize is also being offered to those who can detect ink from X-rays of the document and $50,000 in prizes is to be determined.

Friedman said he was convinced that the scrolls’ secrets can be unlocked using technology because researchers have recently proven that machine learning can recognize ink in papyrus fragments.

“We live in an age of miracles,” Friedman told Axios. “We’re using high energy physics and AI to peer into the past.”

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