When the notion of artificial intelligence became mainstream, it conjured the sense of miracles within reach. Computers would be able to process scads of data to solve humanity’s most pressing problems, from medical mysteries to international terrorism.
But this flush of excitement evaporated fast. In the face of nightmare scenarios showing how easily computers can be programmed to create misinformation, appropriate human likenesses and generally scuttle any reliable sense of the truth, AI in popular culture has become increasingly synonymous with doom.
That’s why last week’s biggest tech story is a welcome reminder that the thrill is not gone. It showed up in the form of a gangly student from the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at the University of Nebraska. Luke Farritor, 21, was returning home from a party when he realized that an AI app he’d invented had been able to read traces of ancient ink inside a 2,000-year-old scroll that may have been owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
“I freaked out,” Farritor told The Washington Post.
He had been a contestant in the worldwide Vesuvius Challenge, a competition to decipher the writing on papyrus unearthed from volcanic ash in the 1750s. When Farritor learned that another contestant had managed to unfurl the scrolls virtually, and had posted photographs of the faded images within, he turned his own letter-reading app to decoding them. The app showed several Greek letters signifying the word purple, a color that indicated wealth in antiquity.
The significance of Farritor’s discovery goes beyond solving a 2,000-year-old puzzle. It reminds us of the possibilities at hand through machine learning. It proves that riddles once believed eternal can be solved. And it exemplifies what an enterprising young person with a good education can accomplish.
Readers of technology, business or philanthropy news will recognize a hometown name in this story. Jeffrey Raikes, a former Microsoft executive, onetime leader at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of the Raikes Foundation focused on youth, is a Nebraska native, and he has donated millions of dollars to the computer science department where Farritor is a student.
While Raikes buzzes with excitement about Farritor’s discovery, he is also looking beyond the immediate moment to the ways it could — and should — shape education. Most of the young people attending the program that bears his name have already studied computer science in high school.
But not all kids have access to teachers with that knowledge.
“Things are changing now, very rapidly,” Raikes said. “So, yes, this is a call to action. We’ve got to make sure our public schools have the curriculum relevant to the needs of the 21st century.”
Raikes’ career demonstrates the ways business success can be leveraged to advance knowledge. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this tale is the collaboration it exemplifies. Farritor, who won $40,000 in first-round prize money, was able to decode “purple” by building on the work of other competitors. And his advancement has, in turn, spurred some of them to join his effort toward reading more of the scrolls, en route to the grand prize of $700,000.
When asked how he planned to use his winnings, Farritor answered with what, for him, feels obvious: buy more powerful computers to push the thrill of discovery even further.