In his 2002 book Lost Languages, Andrew Robinson, then the literary editor of the London Times’ higher-education supplement, declared that “successful archaeological decipherment has turned out to require a synthesis of logic and intuition … that computers do not (and presumably cannot) possess.”
Regina Barzilay, an associate professor in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, Ben Snyder, a grad student in her lab, and the University of Southern California’s Kevin Knight took that claim personally. At the Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Sweden next month, they will present a paper on a new computer system that, in a matter of hours, deciphered much of the ancient Semitic language Ugaritic. In addition to helping archeologists decipher the eight or so ancient languages that have so far resisted their efforts, the work could also help expand the number of languages that automated translation systems like Google Translate can handle.
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