Computer scientists at Canada’s University of Alberta have used artificial intelligence to decipher the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. Although computer-based cryptoanalysis has been used since World War II to crack innumerable codes, in recent years computers have been pitted against a number of enigmatic texts, such as the seventeenth-century Letter from the Devil, and now the use of AI has unveiled the meaning behind the Voynich codex, yielding some surprising results.
Written in the 15th century, the 240-page Voynich Manuscript has baffled researchers for decades: composed in an unknown language with accompanying illustrations, the codex is named after antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased the book in 1912. Voynich’s attempts to have the manuscript analyzed by scholars were unsuccessful, and the book eventually found its way into Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library under call number MS 408.
University of Alberta computing science professor Greg Kondrak decided to use the Voynich Manuscript as a case study in decoding the ambiguities in human language. Kondrak is an expert in natural language processing–a field of computer study that aims to allow AI to be able to understand human languages.
Using samples of 400 languages derived from the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, Kondrak put his program to the task of discovering if the patterns of text in the Voynich Manuscript matched anything on record. Initially assuming the language to be Arabic, Kondrak and his team were surprised to find that the text was in Hebrew.
"That was surprising, and just saying ‘this is Hebrew’ is the first step. The next step is how do we decipher it," explains Kondrak. "It turned out that over 80 per cent of the words were in a Hebrew dictionary, but we didn’t know if they made sense together."
Kondrak was unsuccessful in convincing Hebrew scholars to validate the discovery, so he resorted to using Google Translate. And in another surprise, the commonly-used online translation service also yielded useful results.
"It came up with a sentence that is grammatical, and you can interpret it," said Kondrak. "’She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.’ It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense."