The Voynich manuscript is a 600-year-old document that for centuries has been undeciphered. Scholars have been trying to find the meaning within the manuscript and now a computer scientist has claimed to have cracked it using artificial intelligence.
“The world’s most mysterious medieval text” is strewn with illustrations of exotic plants, stars, and mysterious human figures, including naked women. The 240-page text’s actual text is elegant and unreadable, as any attempts to uncover what language it’s been written in have been unsuccessful. Even the cryptographers from Bletchley Park, the team that deciphered the Nazi enigma code, couldn’t break through the Voynich manuscript.
Greg Kondrak, a computer scientist from the University of Alberta, claims to have worked out the language. Scholars initially thought the manuscript to be Arabic, but Kondrak and his team used statistical algorithms which they believe to be 97 percent accurate when translating the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights into 380 languages. Kondrak and his team came to the conclusion that the manuscript is written in ancient Hebrew, but once they made that discovery, they still had to find a means to unscramble the text. Unraveling the code required shuffling the order of letters in each word and dropping the vowels.
The team sought out Hebrew scholars, but they were no help. Instead, they turned to Google Translate, because Google is the real MVP. “It came up with a sentence that is grammatical, and you can interpret it,” said Dr. Kondrak. “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”
“It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense,” said the scientist.
Kondrak and his team and their powerful AI have deciphered a variety of words, but the software isn’t as helpful as it could be; Dr. Kondrak says there is more to deciphering the document than feeding the manuscript into a computer as it also requires a human to make sense of the syntax. “We use human language to communicate with other humans, but computers don’t understand this language, because it’s designed for people. There are so many ambiguous meanings that we don’t even realize.”
From here, Dr. Kondrak is infuriatingly stagnant—without historians of ancient Hebrew, the full meaning of the Voynich manuscript will remain a mystery.
The success of the way they have gone about it, however, is endlessly useful. The team believes the program could be used to translate scripts from other ancient, potentially dead languages and cultures, including ancient Crete. “There are still ancient scripts that remain undeciphered to this day.”
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