Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

A.I. is translating messages of long-lost languages

MIT and Google researchers use deep learning to decipher ancient languages.

  • Researchers from MIT and Google Brain discover how to use deep learning to decipher ancient languages.
  • The technique can be used to read languages that died long ago.
  • The method builds on the ability of machines to quickly complete monotonous tasks.


There are about 6,500-7,000 languages currently spoken in the world. But that's less than a quarter of all the languages people spoke over the course of human history. That total number is around 31,000 languages, according to some linguistic estimates. Every time a language is lost, so goes that way of thinking, of relating to the world. The relationships, the poetry of life uniquely described through that language are lost too. But what if you could figure out how to read the dead languages? Researchers from MIT and Google Brain created an AI-based system that can accomplish just that.

While languages change, many of the symbols and how the words and characters are distributed stay relatively constant over time. Because of that, you could attempt to decode a long-lost language if you understood its relationship to a known progenitor language. This insight is what allowed the team which included Jiaming Luo and Regina Barzilay from MIT and Yuan Cao from Google's AI lab to use machine learning to decipher the early Greek language Linear B (from 1400 BC) and a cuneiform Ugaritic (early Hebrew) language that's also over 3,000 years old.

Linear B was previously cracked by a human – in 1953, it was deciphered by Michael Ventris. But this was the first time the language was figured out by a machine.

The approach by the researchers focused on 4 key properties related to the context and alignment of the characters to be deciphered – distributional similarity, monotonic character mapping, structural sparsity and significant cognate overlap.

They trained the AI network to look for these traits, achieving the correct translation of 67.3% of Linear B cognates (word of common origin) into their Greek equivalents.

What AI can potentially do better in such tasks, according to MIT Technology Review, is that it can simply take a brute force approach that would be too exhausting for humans. They can attempt to translate symbols of an unknown alphabet by quickly testing it against symbols from one language after another, running them through everything that is already known.

Next for the scientists? Perhaps the translation of Linear A - the Ancient Greek language that no one has succeeded in deciphering so far.

You can check out their paper "Neural Decipherment via Minimum-Cost Flow: from Ugaritic to Linear B" here.

Noam Chomsky on Language’s Great Mysteries

Noam Chomsky contemplates the basic, yet still unanswerable, questions of linguistics.


Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Keep reading Show less

How the Smiths took over Europe

In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname

Image: Marcin Ciura
Strange Maps
  • 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
  • In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
  • Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Keep reading Show less

Dinosaurs suffered from cancer, study confirms

A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.

A Centrosaurus reconstruction

Surprising Science
  • The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
  • After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
  • The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Keep reading Show less

David Epstein: Thinking tools for 'wicked' problems

Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!

Big Think LIVE

UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.


Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast