AI is unlocking not only the future, but the past.

Excitement skyrocketed yesterday over a project to use machine learning to unlock secrets hidden in some 600 papyrus scrolls buried in the ash of the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The Vesuvius Challenge was announced a week ago by Nat Friedman, the former CEO of Github, and Daniel Gross, co-founder of search engine CUE.

They promised a $250,000 prize to whomever could build on groundbreaking work done by Dr. Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky. Seales had used X-ray tomography and computer vision to decipher scrolls found in the Dead Sea without opening them.

Now, Seales is trying to do the same with the Herculaneum Papyri, the only ancient library discovered intact. The documents, preserved in the villa of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, have confounded researchers since 1750 because they were carbonized into ashen logs.

Yesterday, another 16 Silicon Valley executives pitched in to quadruple the prize to $1 million. New sponsors include Joseph Jacks, Arthur Breitman, Matt Huang, Julia DeWahl, Dan Romero, Aaron Levie, Stephanie Sher, Bastian Lehmann, Ivan Zhao and Amjad Masad.

Like so many things these days, the project emerged from the Covid lockdown. Friedman read the book 24 Hours in Ancient Rome and went down a rabbit hole that led him to Seales’ research on the Herculaneum Papyri.

Seales initially tried to use the virtual unwrapping process of X-ray tomography and computer vision that unlocked the En-Gedi scroll in Israel.

However, the Herculaneum Papyri were written with carbon-based ink, making it hard to use X-ray contrast to detect text on the underlying carbon-based papyrus. Seales experimented by using infrared light to read some detached fragments of the papyri.

Friedman is optimistic that text can be used as training data for a machine learning model that would detect otherwise invisible ink.

He says a breakthrough offers the opportunity to enhance our understanding of Ancient Greece and Rome because so little of the written word from that era has been preserved.

The library is unlikely to contain the most famous lost text — the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics — but we know it has works from the Epicurean philosophers, including Philodemus. In 2018, a fragment of the lost work Histories by Seneca the Elder was found.

It’s fascinating how technology promises to make known relics accessible. It reminds one a bit of the re-discovery of the Titanic in 1985 or Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endeavor in 2022.

Friedman noted his astonishment on Twitter that the influx of money into the competition makes it as big as the Millenium Prize Problem, a $1 million award to anyone who solves any of seven famously unsolved mathematical equations.

A week ago the mood in Silicon Valley was dark.

One person joked online that the rush to donate is “the opposite of the Silicon Valley Bank Run.”