Using AI to uncover the mystery of Voynich manuscript

January 29, 2018 by Jennifer-Anne Pascoe, University of Alberta
UAlberta researchers are using artificial intelligence to decipher the text in the 15th-century Voynich manuscript, whose meaning has eluded historians and cryptographers since it was discovered in the 19th century. Credit: Yale Library

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta are using artificial intelligence to decipher an ancient manuscript.

The mysterious text in the 15th-century Voynich manuscript has plagued historians and cryptographers since its discovery in the . Recently, U of A computing science professor Greg Kondrak, an expert in , and graduate student Bradley Hauer used to decode the ambiguities in using the Voynich manuscript as a .

Their first step was to address the of origin, which is enciphered on hundreds of delicate vellum pages with accompanying illustrations.

Kondrak and Hauer used samples of 400 different languages from the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" to systematically identify the language. They initially hypothesized that the Voynich manuscript was written in Arabic but after running their algorithms, it turned out that the most likely language was Hebrew.

"That was surprising," said Kondrak. "And just saying 'this is Hebrew' is the first step. The next step is how do we decipher it."

Kondrak and Hauer hypothesized the manuscript was created using alphagrams, defining one phrase with another, exemplary of the ambiguities in human language. Assuming that, they tried to come up with an algorithm to decipher that type of scrambled text.

"It turned out that over 80 per cent of the words were in a Hebrew dictionary, but we didn't know if they made sense together," said Kondrak.

After unsuccessfully seeking Hebrew scholars to validate their findings, the scientists turned to Google Translate.

"It came up with a sentence that is grammatical, and you can interpret it," said 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."

Without historians of ancient Hebrew, Kondrak explained, the full meaning of the Voynich manuscript will remain a mystery. He said he is looking forward to applying the algorithms he and Hauer developed to other ancient .

An avid language aficionado, Kondrak is renowned for his work with natural language processing, a subset of artificial intelligence defined as helping computers understand human language.

"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," said Kondrak. "Natural language processing helps computers make sense of human language. Not only do we want to talk to computers in our language because it's easier and more convenient, but also there is a lot of information that exists in the form of written word. Take the internet, for example."

Explore further: Botanists suggest Voynich illustrations similar to plants in Mexico

More information: Decoding Anagrammed Texts Written in an Unknown Language and Script. transacl.org/ojs/index.php/tacl/article/view/821

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13 comments

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betterexists
1 / 5 (1) Jan 29, 2018
Old Vs. New...Good ! There is Constant Noise in the Media about AI Killing jobs in the future; If it is true, it goes along with the fact that production will be intensified also. It then should force Governments to provide FREE ADVANCED Education, Food and Residence so that they will also join in the task of More & More Advanced Research. It will be Exponential Phenomenon there afterwards.
katesisco
not rated yet Jan 29, 2018
IA should be of benefit almost anywhere. I am looking forward to the robot diagnostician.
rrwillsj
2 / 5 (4) Jan 29, 2018
Before we get all excited about the Glorious Future of Matronly AI Overlords coddling us in their strong (very strong!) steel arms.

Consider your WP's word replacement functions such as Spellcheck.

Okay, sometimes the wrong word in the right place can be hilarious.

However, if the programmers writing code for Spellcheck can't get those functions to work correctly? You want to trust that bunch writing code for your medical diagnostic machine? For your automobile? For your ICBMs? Really?
BobSage
not rated yet Jan 29, 2018
Another take:

http://www.ediths...decoded/

Italian or Hebrew. Both interesting approaches.
Urgelt
5 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2018
rrwillsj blurted, "However, if the programmers writing code for Spellcheck can't get those functions to work correctly? You want to trust that bunch writing code for your medical diagnostic machine? For your automobile? For your ICBMs? Really?"

Yes, and the first crude wooden bow likely snapped on its first pull, therefore the weapons tech industry can't exist.

That kind of logic isn't taught in universities. I wonder why?
xponen
5 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2018
"'She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.'

So I imagine every paragraph in the book started by attributing sources (ie: She); and then it proceed by attributing the receiver (ie;Priest, man of the house, and people), then it proceed by documenting what the person said.

I think this is similar to Islamic hadith where such format is used. It is probably an earlier form of citation in ancient world..
rrwillsj
3 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2018
Urgelt, I realize you want simplistic answers. So, here you are. "A broken bow would be unfortunate for yourself, as you hear the growl of the hungry bear approaching.

Thousands of lines of code containing any obscure errors. Accidental or deliberate. Written by some guy who seethes with anger that he can't get a date?

For the code that say, drives the truck of gasoline, passing your vehicle carrying your family? 'Unfortunate' does not even begin to describe the imminent horror!

xponen, You made a shrewd
interpretation of possible meanings. Working from your reasoning, I wonder if this was meant as an herbal guide? Maybe by a Secret Jew hiding out in the Spanish or Portuguese new world colonies?

Collecting local knowledge of plants found in the Americas?

Throughout human herstory, women as gathers not only built agriculture but were also herbalist medicos. Until men realized how profitable medicine is as a monopoly. And the competition burned as witches.
Urgelt
5 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2018
Autonomous vehicles will be considerably safer, generate fewer accidents per mile traveled, fewer deaths and injuries, than human-operated vehicles.

Be horrified all you like, rrwillsj. It won't change the reality of it.

Will there be errors? Yep.

Human drivers make errors, too - tons more of them. Really, we're bloody awful at driving. AI can already do better, and it's still improving.
howhot3
5 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2018
It's is interesting how much mystery has surrounded the Voynich manuscript. To be honest, its pictures, strange language, symbols etc are so fascinating to view. To find out now that 80% can be translated as *ancient* Hebrew, or perhaps just a version of a rural dialect seems to fit. As an example the beginning of the book starts with "She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." would fit perfectly with a book of medicine, herbs, poisons and practices of women, spoken to a scribe 'and me' students 'and people'. It seems to be about women's health as a whole chapter is dedicated to showing women using birthing tubs. Maybe like a how-to book. At least that is my impression. To know the it's mostly Hebrew is a huge finding.


http://www.biblio...o07a.htm
flashgordon
not rated yet Jan 30, 2018
cool . . .what does it say?
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2018
Well Urgelt, I am hoping your assumption of better traffic safety will turn out to be correct. I hope, I do not assume.

So are you going to vouch for every single programmer's mental health or even their (hopefully sober) competency and mature judgement? Asserting such omniscience would lead me to question your mental health.

Having human drivers available to blame and accept the financial liability. Somebody to be held responsible for accidents and misdeeds.

Do you intend to jail a robot driver for DUI of an anonymous hacker?

Wanna bet on how soon the first efforts are made to legislate liability waivers for manufacturers and the software conglomerates?
moranity
not rated yet Feb 05, 2018
"'She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." It seems to me to be a very unusual start to a book (it does not define who 'she' is), and i'd say you'd have to have a vested interest to positively interpret that as a good translation.We all see faces in clouds, but they don't really exist, or maybe they are the gods.
So this is hebrew but using an alternative alphabet? and this "translation" of which is basically, according to this article, a substitution cypher, surely someone would already have tried such a simple option? It's basically saying that this is one of the most simple style of cypher based on a language common at the time and it's taken this long to decipher?
OK, if the entire text has some sense to it, then i'll be more convinced, but the first line alone ain't enough for me

BrettC
not rated yet Feb 26, 2018
I wonder if the structure is like Latin. Perhaps it was an attempt to meld the scientific structured naming convention of Latin with Hebrew. Many of the repeating sequences could be a direct Hebrew translation of the Latin naming system for the plants. That would explain the difficulty in translation. Either way, it's obvious the plants were being described in detail on each page after the drawing was completed. There should be correlations between the texts and the similarities between plants. For example, cross reference the plants with six leaves and all the descriptions on the pages with other plants with six leaves and find the correlating words.

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