The Voynich manuscript has eluded translation for ages, with even the best codebreakers failing to decipher its contents. Can artificial intelligence do what humans have failed to do?
A page from the Voynich manuscript
For decades, there have been various attempts to figure out what’s going on in the famed Voynich manuscript. The manuscript is a 240-page document filled with an unknown script and illustrations of stars, plants, and bathing women. Interestingly, only some of the star diagrams match known zodiac signs, while the other diagrams don’t look like they belong in our skies. Some of the illustrated plants also match known species, though other illustrations don’t seem to have real-world counterparts.
In 1912, a collector of rare books named Wilfrid Voynich bought the manuscript with an interest in finding someone who wanted to translate its contents. Many wanted to, though each attempt since then has been debunked. However, University of Alberta computer scientist Greg Kondrak thinks that with the help of artificial intelligence, we may finally discover the manuscript’s contents.
A page featuring bathing women
There have been at least eight major attempts to translate the contents of the manuscript, the latest of which happened just last year. Even the team at the famous Bletchley Park, made up of British cryptographers who broke Nazi enigma codes, failed to figure out what the manuscript was about.
Kondrak has decided to augment human abilities with the power of artificial intelligence. The lab at his university has already made headlines by building a machine that can beat professional Texas Hold ‘Em players, so there’s already a solid background in artificial intelligence there.
The mysterious script that has eluded translation for decades
To start, Kondrak and his study co-author Bradley Hauer translated the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and translated it into 380 languages. Their AI program was able to correctly identify 97 percent of the languages using a series of algorithms. The program’s resulting analysis of the Voynich manuscript was that it was written in Hebrew. The writer or writers of the manuscript also reordered the letters in every word and dropped vowels.
According to the program, the first sentence of the manuscript was this: "She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." The researchers also think that the first 72 words of the manuscript include words such as “farmer,” “light,” “air” and “fire”.
Some of the manuscript's pages fold out to reveal diagrams such as this.
While this research certainly has the potential to be groundbreaking, Kondrak has admitted that the reception of his work among Voynich manuscript experts has been cool. "I don't think they are friendly to this kind of research," Kondrak says. "People may be fearing that the computers will replace them."
While artificial intelligence may be of incredible help to translation efforts, even Kondrak thinks that human input is still invaluable. After all, a computer won’t be able to determine syntax and intent behind the words, but a human translator can. Thus, there’s still a possibility that human translators will play a vital role in the translation of this mysterious document.
There are still other old documents whose contents remain a mystery. Kondrak hopes that the efforts to use AI as a tool to decipher the Voynich manuscript can help efforts to translate these other mysterious texts.
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