The Abbey Library of St. Gall in Switzerland is home to approximately 160,000 volumes of literary and historical manuscripts dating back to the eighth century—all of which are written by hand, on parchment, in languages rarely spoken in modern times.
To preserve these historical accounts of humanity, such texts, numbering in the millions, have been kept safely stored away in libraries and monasteries all over the world. A significant portion of these collections are available to the general public through digital imagery, but experts say there is an extraordinary amount of material that has never been read—a treasure trove of insight into the world’s history hidden within.
Now, researchers at University of Notre Dame are developing an artificial neural network to read complex ancient handwriting based on human perception to improve capabilities of deep learning transcription.
“We’re dealing with historical documents written in styles that have long fallen out of fashion, going back many centuries, and in languages like Latin, which are rarely ever used anymore,” said Walter Scheirer, the Dennis O. Doughty Collegiate Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Notre Dame. “You can get beautiful photos of these materials, but what we’ve set out to do is automate transcription in a way that mimics the perception of the page through the eyes of the expert reader and provides a quick, searchable reading of the text.”
In research published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, Scheirer outlines how his team combined traditional methods of machine learning with visual psychophysics—a method of measuring the connections between physical stimuli and mental phenomena, such as the amount of time it takes for an expert reader to recognize a specific character, gauge the quality of the handwriting or identify the use of certain abbreviations.
Scheirer’s team studied digitized Latin manuscripts that were written by scribes in the Cloister of St. Gall in the ninth century. Readers entered their manual transcriptions into a specially designed software interface. The team then measured reaction times during transcription for an understanding of which words, characters and passages were easy or difficult. Scheirer explained that including that kind of data created a network more consistent with human behavior, reduced errors and provided a more accurate, more realistic reading of the text.
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