Can Machine Learning Translate Ancient Egyptian Texts?

I have long been intrigued by archaeogaming—an academic discipline that explores the fusion of archaeological objects, methods, and characters into video games. So I was thrilled when the video game company Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed: Origins, set in Egypt during Cleopatra’s reign. The designers collaborated with Egyptologists to ensure everything from the architecture to the hieroglyphics created an accurate, immersive world. Unexpectedly, this partnership inspired a machine-learning spinoff that changed the course of my early career.

While working with Egyptologists, the game developers learned that translating and interpreting ancient hieroglyphic texts is time-consuming, and the process has changed little in the last century. So, Ubisoft decided to give back to the academic community by developing the Hieroglyphics Initiative.

The project aims to help researchers decode Egyptian hieroglyphs using machine learning—a type of artificial intelligence that allows computer programs to become better at making predictions through experience.

The developers joined forces with a range of scholars within Egyptology, including members of the Australian Centre for Egyptology at Macquarie University, where I was a master’s student in search of a thesis topic. It felt like a sign. The Hieroglyphics Initiative was an opportunity for me to give back to the academic community by assisting with the development of a computer program that could benefit Egyptologists. I could explore how machine learning might transform archaeological research and education, and even how the public interacts with Egyptology.

The question was: Did the Hieroglyphics Initiative deliver on its promise? I made it my mission to find out.

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