• Reading Level 5

Science Journalist of the Year Aged 14-18: Winner

Beeline Reader (learn more) uses subtle colour gradients to help you read more quickly and efficiently.

Using AI to Uncover the Past – How Modern Technology is Rewriting History

Mary, The Tiffin Girls’ School, UK

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the future, but it is increasingly becoming crucial in understanding the past. Over recent years, AI programs have been developed to uncover previously lost parts of history, from Mesopotamia to Ancient Rome to 17th century Ireland.

Recently, a team of eminent papyrologists made headlines after winning the Vesuvius Challenge – a competition to decode the hidden text of a charred scroll, buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. Using AI, the three technology-savvy students – Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger – scooped the $700,000 prize by successfully decoding over 2,000 letters of the text and allowing its contents to be read for the first time in two millennia.

“The author – probably Epicurean philosopher Philodemus – writes here about music, food, and how to enjoy life’s pleasures.” said Nat Friedman, founding sponsor of the competition, tweeting on X after the winners were announced. “In the closing section, he throws shade at unnamed ideological adversaries – perhaps the stoics? – who ‘have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular.’”

So far, about 5% of the scroll has been read, thanks to a combination of CT scans and AI programs. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, spent years developing an AI algorithm to unwrap the carbonised scrolls and identify traces of ink from papyrus fibres, which the competitors then used. Their hard-work could lead to massive expansion in the amount of texts from antiquity that can be read and studied by historians today. The information contained within them might rewrite history as we know it.

Meanwhile, AI is being used to predict missing fragments from cuneiform tablets by suggesting contextually accurate words to fill in the gaps. Written in the ancient Akkadian language and up to 4500 years old, these clay tablets are inscribed with text that will be crucial to understanding the culture of ancient Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq.

AI is not only being used to uncover the distant past, but also to give a voice to history’s forgotten. In Trinity College Dublin, historians have begun to use AI to scour through documents for information on Irish women previously omitted from history. The ambitious project, launched at the beginning of this month, focuses on the lives of women in Ireland between 1500 and 1700, a period marked by social and political upheaval in Ireland.

The project, titled VOICES, is headed by historian Professor Jane Ohlmeyer and backed by a team of historians and computer scientists, as well as €2.5m in funding from the European Research Council. At the launch event, Professor Ohlmeyer explained how “Women are largely absent from historical narratives [. . .] But ordinary women are not absent from the story of early modern Ireland; they are hiding in plain sight in fragments and passing mentions across a multitude of historical records – wills, maps, surveys, records of debt, and legal depositions.”

It is hoped that the AI program Transkribus, developed for this project, will enable researchers to analyse historical documents for marginalised individuals, not just within Ireland, but throughout global history, uncovering these hidden narratives and rewriting history into something more diverse. AI is not just the future; it will also become the past.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email