Computers May Crack Ancient Texts
Computer software that creates a statistical model of even indecipherable languages is being used in an attempt to better understand texts the meaning of which have been lost.
(Indecipherable Indus valley text cracked)
This fragment of text from the Indus Valley between 2600 and 1900 BC is part of more than 5,000 seals, tablets and amulets discovered by archaeologists.
Experts even disagree on whether or not the markings, called the Harappan script, even constitute a language. National pride is at stake; some scholars have declared that the script only provides rudimentary pictograms and that the Indus Valley people were functionally illiterate.
American and Indian computer scientists entered the symbols and are running a statistical analysis.
"The computer program operates on sequences of symbols, so it can be used to learn a statistical model of any set of unknown or known texts," says Rajesh Rao, University of Washington professor of computer science and co-author of the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
"In fact, such statistical models have been used to analyze a wide variety of sequences ranging from DNA and speech to economic data."
At present, researchers like Rao are simply trying to determine if the markings are really a language.
Our results appear to favor the hypothesis that the Indus script represents a linguistic writing system. Our Markov analysis of sign sequences, although restricted to pairwise statistics, makes it clear that the signs do not occur in a random manner within inscriptions but appear to follow certain rules: (i) some signs have a high probability of occurring at the beginning of inscriptions whereas others almost never occur at the beginning; and (ii) for any particular sign, there are signs that have a high probability of occurring after that sign and other signs that have negligible probability of occurring after the same sign. Furthermore, signs appear to fall into functional classes in terms of their position within an Indus text, where a particular sign can be replaced by another sign in its equivalence class. Such rich syntactic structure is hard to reconcile with a nonlinguistic system. Additionally, our finding that the script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia argues against the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols.
Many experts, however, remain pessimistic, believing that these texts may never be fully translated without some sort of Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone is a famous ancient Egyptian stone with carved text in Demotic, hieroglyphic and classical Greek; it was the key to translating many important Egyptian texts in the mid-1800's.
This idea of cracking ancient languages was popularized in the 1998 film Blade, based on the 1970's Marvel Comics character. In the movie, Deacon Frost, an ambitious young vampire, believes that the key to ultimate power for himself lies in the untranslatable Book of Erebus, a set of long parchments.
(Blade walks through displayed Book of Erebus)
Deacon Frost is the modern sort of vampire, who largely disdains the conservative, ancient ways; he uses computers to crack the Book of Erebus to gain its power for himself. Blade arrives at the opportune moment, with his own slashing analysis.
(Deacon Frost completes his computer translation)
Perhaps indecipherable ancient texts are better left untranslated.
Read more about the Indus Valley computer analysis story at ABC Science and Time; read the original paper A Markov model of the Indus script (pdf). Thanks to Moira for suggesting the topic in association with Blade.
Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/1/2009)
Follow this kind of news @Technovelgy.
| Email | RSS | Blog It | Stumble | del.icio.us | Digg | Reddit |
you like to contribute a story tip?
Get the URL of the story, and the related sf author, and add
Comment/Join discussion ( 1 )
Related News Stories -
The Largest Virtual Universe!
'...a machine able literally to contain the Universe Itself .' - Stanislaw Lem, 1965.
ARM Wants To Build Brain Chips
'Slivers of microsoft, angular fragments of colored silicon...' - William Gibson, 1984.
Robot Swarms Controlled With Augmented Reality
'You're not thinking in enough dimensions...' - Daniel Suarez, 2009.
Eterni.me - To Skype With The Dead
'Nothing... left of Jeserac but a galaxy of electrons frozen in the heart of a crystal.'- Arthur C. Clarke, 1956.
Technovelgy (that's tech-novel-gee!)
is devoted to the creative science inventions and ideas of sf authors. Look for
the Invention Category that interests
you, the Glossary, the Invention
Timeline, or see what's New.
TALOS Exoskeleton Development Proceeding
'Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla...'
Autonomous Robots Navigate Like Rats
'Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted.'
SINTEF Robot Cleans Solar Panels
'The window cleaners, with large padded feet...'
Pangorin Restaurant Service Robots
What'll you have? Jawa juice?
Drug Creates Real Melanin Tan
I've used them all my life...
Medical Drones Hover Like Angels Near You
'The death-reversal equipment is on its way...'
SkEye Amazing Israeli Gigapixel Drone
'An eye that could not only see, but fly...'
How Rude! DARPA Wants Robots To Behave More Like Threepio
'Do I know protocol? Why, it's my primary function.'
'Liquid Light' Flows Around Corners
Light as a superfluid.
Unrolling The Filmy Materials Of Space Tech
'When unfolded and unrolled... it became a tough, gleaming film.'
Buddy Companion Robot Your Bulbous Friend
'Nanny was built in the shape of a sphere, a large metal sphere, flattened on the bottom...'
Poli-X1 Prototype Bee Pollinator
Is there anything drones can't do?
Bake in Space Bake-Off... In Space!
'A joyous condition commenced for the cook in the electric kitchen...'
DeepMind AI Baffled By Homer Simpson, Needs Human Help
'Whenever a robot finds something it can't identify straight off...'
Does Earth's Middle Mantle Hold Oceans Of Water?
Al Gore, you have no idea.
Vaccine Blocks Heroin High
'You're biochemically incapable of getting off...'
More SF in the News Stories
More Beyond Technovelgy science news stories