Thursday, February 1, 2018

AI May Have Decoded the 600 Year-old Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript or Not

Yesterday certain corners of the interwebs were atwitter with the news. Here's ArtNet with part of the story and background:

AI May Have Just Decoded a Mystical 600-Year-Old Manuscript That Baffled Humans for Decades
The secret to the Voynich Manuscript? It's in a language no one expected
A page from the undecipherable Voynich Manuscript. Canadian computing scientists believe they are cracking the code with the help of artificial intelligence. Photo courtesy of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
One of the world’s most infamous mysteries may have just been solved, thanks not to human genius, but to artificial intelligence. Named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912, the 240-page Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script and an unknown language that no one has been able to interpret—until now.

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta claim to have cracked the code to the inscrutable handwritten 15th-century codex, which has baffled cryptologists, historians, and linguists for decades. Stymied by the seemingly unbreakable code, some have speculated it was written by aliens. Experts have even posited that the whole thing is a hoax with no hidden meaning. Today, housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut, the manuscript’s delicate vellum pages are illustrated with botanical drawings, astronomical diagrams, and naked female figures.

When it came to tackling the centuries-old mystery, professor Greg Kondrak and grad student Bradley Hauer put their expertise in natural language processing to good use, running algorithms that compared the document’s text to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in no less than 380 different languages. According to the computer, the Voynich manuscript was written in Hebrew....MORE
Today we see at The Verge:

AI didn’t decode the cryptic Voynich manuscript — it just added to the mystery
Claims about AI ‘cracking’ the 600-year-old code were just wishful thinking
If you were compiling a list of the world’s 100 oddest objects — just the weirdest stuff that human civilization has excreted over the millennia — then you’d have to leave room somewhere for the Voynich manuscript. It’s 600 years old, written in a language no one can read, and full of diagrams no one understands. It is a genuine, bonafide, world-class mystery. This is presumably why when newsrooms around the world had a chance this week to publish stories claiming it’d been “decoded by artificial intelligence,” they leapt at the opportunity.

Except, of course, it hasn’t. Not at all. According to experts, the Voynich manuscript remains as inscrutable as ever. But understanding why this new research fails to “decode” the text, and what exactly it does add to the annals of Voynichology, has its own value. It also emphasizes (if further emphasis were needed) that this manuscript is one extremely odd cookie....MORE
If interested here is the provenance, as best as can be reconstructed, of the little oddity:
The history of the Voynich MS
Manuscript Road Trip: The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript