Monday, July 24, 2023

Translating the Bible and Cuneiform Tablets with Modern AI Technology


The need to understand the ancient texts—whether for scholarly pursuits, cultural preservation, or simply to satisfy our innate curiosity about our past—has been a driving force in the fields of linguistics, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. In recent times, we have seen a promising integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into these disciplines, transforming the way we approach language translation and enhancing our ability to access and comprehend our historical heritage. Two of the most significant ancient texts being translated with the aid of AI are the Bible and cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. The success of these AI-enabled translation efforts, while still a work in progress, suggests that technology can play an instrumental role in opening up the past and illuminating our shared human history.

Cuneiform Tablets and Akkadian Language: An AI Revolution

Discovered in the cradle of civilization, the Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets represent one of the earliest known writing systems, used for more than three millennia. However, the art of reading these wedge-shaped inscriptions has long been lost, with only a limited number of specialists worldwide proficient in their translation. Now, with the advent of AI, we may be on the brink of a revolution in our understanding of these ancient records.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the USC Information Sciences Institute have developed an AI model capable of translating cuneiform text from Akkadian, the oldest known Semitic language. Their model has been trained on a selection of texts from the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus, learning to translate not just from transliterations of the original texts, but also directly from cuneiform symbols. The model was evaluated using the bilingual evaluation understudy 4 (BLEU4) algorithm, scoring well above the established baseline, indicating its proficiency in translation.

Yet, the task was not without its unique challenges. The AI model had to contend with the fluidity and transformation of cuneiform script over thousands of years. Furthermore, it needed to recognize the subtle differences between various genres within the Akkadian language. Remarkably, the model showed an ability to reproduce the nuances of each genre in its translations, a feature that could lead to applications beyond simple translation.

Despite its impressive performance, the AI model has room for improvement. It occasionally mistranslates test sentences or produces irrelevant responses—a phenomenon termed as "hallucinations". Furthermore, its performance varies across different genres and sentence lengths. To refine its performance, the researchers plan to train the model on a larger dataset.

The Bible and the Greek Room: A Leap Towards Linguistic Completeness

Moving from the ancient Mesopotamian plains to the pages of the Bible, AI continues to disrupt conventional methods of translation. The Bible, being the most translated book globally, has nevertheless eluded complete translation, with many of the world's 7,100 languages still lacking a translated version. In response to this challenge, researchers Joel Mathew and Ulf Hermjakob from the USC Information Sciences Institute have introduced an AI-powered solution—The Greek Room.

The Greek Room uses a combination of machine learning, natural language processing, and contextual learning from existing Bible translations to generate translations in extremely rare languages. By identifying parallel passages across different books of the Bible, the model infers the meanings of specific words and phrases, thereby improving its translation capabilities.

The Greek Room represents a significant breakthrough for languages that lack substantial translated texts, known as "very low-resource languages". With these languages, translators often resort to oral traditions or intermediary languages to produce translations. The Greek Room offers an initial AI-generated translation, which human translators can then refine, accelerating the translation process and enhancing its accuracy.

Translating Ancient Texts: Challenges and Potential

The application of AI in translating ancient texts, such as the cuneiform tablets and the Bible, is not without challenges. Languages are complex, influenced by cultural and historical nuances that may be difficult for an AI to grasp fully. Even the same word can have different meanings depending on the context, making translating a non-trivial task.

AI technologies like the Greek Room and the Akkadian translation model operate by finding patterns in large amounts of data. For languages that lack sizable corpora, like many "very low-resource languages", this can present a significant hurdle. Consequently, AI's effectiveness in such cases can be limited, requiring the intervention of human translators for refinement and context interpretation.

Furthermore, these AI models must cope with issues such as linguistic drift, where the meaning of words changes over time, or the presence of homonyms, words that share the same spelling but have different meanings. They must also contend with linguistic ambiguity, where the meaning of a word or phrase is unclear without additional context. These complexities underscore the necessity of human expertise to guide and improve the AI translation process.

However, despite these challenges, the potential of AI in translating ancient texts is immense. It offers a new and efficient method to access and understand our past, opening up historical narratives to a broader audience. By facilitating the translation of rare and ancient languages, AI can help document and preserve endangered languages and bring them into the mainstream. Furthermore, AI-assisted translation can accelerate the pace of scholarly research, encouraging a more robust and diverse dialogue about our shared past.

The Symbiosis of AI and Human Expertise in Language Translation

As we delve into the possibilities of AI in language translation, it is crucial to remember the indispensable role of human expertise. Language, especially in its written form, is more than a collection of words—it is a reflection of the culture, history, and values of a people. Understanding this requires human intuition and a deep appreciation for the intricacies of language that an AI, as of now, is incapable of fully grasping.

The partnership between AI and human translators is vital in overcoming the limitations inherent in AI translations. The Greek Room's model exemplifies this approach, using AI to provide an initial translation and then refining it with human input. Similarly, the Akkadian translation model relies on human expertise for training and validation. Thus, the future of language translation, particularly of ancient and rare languages, lies in a symbiotic relationship between AI and human expertise.

Conclusion: AI and the Future of Ancient Texts Translation

As we continue to navigate the intersection of AI and language translation, it becomes clear that we stand at the cusp of a revolution. From translating the intricate symbols of ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets to rendering the New Testament into "very low-resource languages", AI is reshaping the way we access and comprehend our shared history.

Artificial intelligence, when wielded judiciously, can become a potent tool in helping us understand our past and preserve our cultural heritage. The translation of ancient texts is not merely an academic endeavor—it is a bridge connecting us to our history, allowing us to engage with the narratives that have shaped human civilizations. The integration of AI in this process can unlock the immense potential of these historical records, bringing them into a broader, more inclusive dialogue.

In this age of AI and machine learning, we have an unparalleled opportunity to harness these technologies to enrich our collective understanding of the human experience. As we continue to refine and improve these AI models, we ensure that our past remains a vibrant part of our present, offering invaluable insights into our future. The translation of ancient texts, whether it's the Bible, the cuneiform tablets, or other yet untranslated texts, is a testament to our enduring fascination with our roots and the narratives that shape our world. The pioneering use of AI in translating these texts is a testament to our relentless quest for knowledge and our desire to bridge the gaps between cultures, eras, and languages.

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