Jan 26, 2018 I Brett Tingley

AI Reveals New Clues in Deciphering the Voynich Manuscript

In some ways, the Voynich Manuscript is one of the most mysterious texts known to historians. The text is filled with fantastic, surreal imagery depicting plants, astronomical drawings, strange creatures, and a variety of dreamlike scenes. The origin of the text is unknown, but radiocarbon dating of the vellum it was written on puts its date of creation somewhere in the early 15th century. The book has changed hands numerous times throughout the centuries, passing from alchemists to rare booksellers and even to the King of Hungary. Today the Voynich manuscript resides in Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The 240-page manuscript is written in an unknown language and script and has so far proven undecipherable even by the world’s most skilled cryptographers.

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The manuscript is also full of these strange scenes of "nymphs."

Every year or two, however, someone claims to have deciphered at least part of the manuscript, with most of the clues suggesting it was some type of pharmacopoeia or botany manual. Of course, one could surmise as much just by looking at the pictures. Just this week, however, a pair of Canadian artificial intelligence researchers claims to have developed an AI algorithm capable of deciphering the entire manuscript. Has the mystery of the Voynich manuscript finally been solved?

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Curiously, many of the plants depicted in the manuscript resemble no known plants or flowers. Known on Earth, anyway.

Well, not exactly. But we might be getting close. The University of Alberta’s Greg Kondrak and Bradley Hauer claim to have developed an AI algorithm capable of deducing the language a text was written in with 97% accuracy. According to their algorithm, the Voynich manuscript was likely written in Hebrew and then encrypted using a substitution cipher in which letters are shifted, and the vowels have been removed from words. Kondrak and Hauer’s algorithm found that the first sentence of the text translates as "She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." In its analysis of the first 72 words of the manuscript, the algorithm has identified “farmer," "light," "air" and "fire” as the four most common words, with "covfefe" coming in a close fifth.

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I knows gobbledygook when I sees it.

While this development is being hailed as a breakthrough in the quest to decipher the Voynich manuscript, the researchers themselves note that their work is far from complete and that hours and hours of human research are still needed to interpret the syntax and meaning behind the words. Will we ever really decipher the Voynich manuscript? What if it was written in gibberish and filled with curious images as a hoax or practical joke? Personally, I find that to be the most likely of all scenarios. And how hilarious would that be, writing a book of nonsense that gets pored over by learned men for centuries? If that's the case, the author was a comic genius.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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