Hidden meanings: Using artificial intelligence to translate ancient texts

The ancient world is full of mystery. Many mysteries, in fact. Many mysteries indeed.

Who built the monolithic and megalithic structures found all over the world? Why did they build them? How did they build them? What technology did they use?

And perhaps most importantly from the point of view answering all the other questions: Where are the texts that the builders produced?

We assume that if the ancients were capable of building structures that modern humans cannot replicate even now with the latest technology, they must have been a literate civilization which recorded and stored information.

But where is it?

These are among the multitude of questions that have actively and specifically preoccupied archaeologists and historians for more than a century.

A huge amount of progress has been made as a result of the dedicated pursuit of the answers. It has spawned a multibillion-dollar global tourism industry and some relatively well-funded academic projects. A lot of museums and films can also be said to be somewhat beholden to this obsession with the ancient past.

But in terms of definitively answering those big questions, progress has been rather slow and painstaking.

The Rosetta Stone

It would, of course, help if more artifacts like the Rosetta Stone were discovered.

The Rosetta Stone, created in around 200 BC and discovered in the year 1800, is a black stone on which three different languages were written – Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek, and a more common Egyptian language called Demotic.

This stone enabled people studying ancient cultures to finally understand the Egyptian hieroglyphics which cover acres of surface area on pyramids and temples in the country.

The presumption is made that the three statements on the Rosetta Stone are direct and literal translations of each other, but since academics have been studying it for a long time, we can probably safely make that presumption.

Other ancient languages, however, are proving more evasive. The Indus Valley civilization, which is said to be one of the oldest ever discovered, used a language that is defying almost all attempts at translations because it has no established relationship with any other language on Earth, although it is pictorial in part.

The Sumerian language is more amenable to translation because some Sumerian people appear to have been bilingual, also speaking a contemporary language called Akkadian.

Translation work has so far been undertaken by humans, but soon, artificial intelligence systems will, inevitably, be used to not only speed up the process, but also improve accuracy – and perhaps identify similarities and patterns across many languages humans may not have the time or ability to interpret.

Read more: Robotics & Automation

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