Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 5 August 2020

Fabricius: this new Google AI tool helps you decode and write in hieroglyphs

Whether you're an amateur or expert, this fun new tool caters to everyone

Fabricius was made available on the Google Arts and Culture app on July 15, which coincides with the anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Google Arts and Culture  
Fabricius was made available on the Google Arts and Culture app on July 15, which coincides with the anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Google Arts and Culture  

Google has created a new tool that can decode Egyptian hieroglyphs in English and Arabic, and launched it on the anniversary of the Rosetta Stone's discovery.

The Fabricius tool will be useful for experts who want to translate hieroglyphics more efficiently, and also for everyday users who want to learn more about the Ancient Egyptian writing system. You can even use it to send messages to your friends in hieroglyphs.

Fabricius – developed by the Australian Centre for Egyptology at the Macquarie University in Australia, Psycle Interactive, and Ubisoft – was made available on the Google Arts and Culture app on Wednesday, July 15, which coincides with the 221st anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

The tool offers three different ways of discovering and interacting with hieroglyphs: Learn, Play, and Work. Google Arts and Culture
The tool offers three different ways of discovering and interacting with hieroglyphs: Learn, Play, and Work. Google Arts and Culture

“Fabricius began with an experimental idea: could today’s tech be used to help decode languages?” Chance Coughenour, head of preservation at Google Arts and Culture, said during an online unveiling of the app.

After two years of development, that answer is yes – but it's not quite as straightforward as your typical translation app.

“It is a step forward in the process,” Coughenour said. “Fabricius doesn’t do automatic translation, but rather it is a tool that helps experts translate the hieroglyphs more efficiently.”

This means that Fabricius won't work as quickly as say, Google Translate, which works on modern-day languages.

Before the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, there was no making sense of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Google Arts and Culture 
Before the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, there was no making sense of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Google Arts and Culture

Instead, experts who use some of the tool's more sophisticated features will have to specifically sequence and process images of the hieroglyphs before the tool translates them. It's a process that can take roughly an hour, depending on the complexity of the hieroglyphs.

Before the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, scholars were not able to read Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature.

The Stone – a tablet of granodiorite that was part of a larger slab – held an official decree about King Ptolemy V inscribed in three scripts: hieroglyphs, Ancient Greek and Demotic (the native Egyptian script used for everyday purposes). The inscriptions on the Stone were the first time experts had access to a translation of the hieroglyphs, and its discovery was monumental in helping unravel the mysteries of the Egyptian writing system.

Fabricius will be useful for experts who want to translate the contents of hieroglyphics more efficiently. Google Arts and Culture 
Fabricius will be useful for experts who want to translate the contents of hieroglyphics more efficiently. Google Arts and Culture

And now, 221 years on, you don't need to slave over the Stone's translations to indulge your inner Egyptologist.

Fabricius, which can be accessed from the Google Arts and Culture app, offers three functions to discover and interact with hieroglyphs: Learn, Play, and Work.

If you’re an academic and looking to use the tool for work, you'll probably be most interested in the Work function, which is only available on the desktop version of the app.

The easiest way to understand hieroglyphs is to imagine that they are the ancient Egyptian equivalent of emojis. Google Arts and Culture
The easiest way to understand hieroglyphs is to imagine that they are the ancient Egyptian equivalent of emojis. Google Arts and Culture

This is where experts will be able to process images of hieroglyphs, before sequencing and identifying them.

For amateurs, the Learn feature helps you take your first step into the world of hieroglyphs. This is where you'll learn the basics of reading the ancient writing system.

But it’s most likely the Play function that most of us are going to spend our time on. This feature takes whatever sentence you type and translates it into hieroglyphs. It isn't meant to be an accurate translation, but rather a fun way of interacting with the ancient script and sending coded messages to friends.

Before long, you may find yourself using the machine-learning tool to decode the hieroglyphs found in Egyptian tombs. Google Arts and Culture
Before long, you may find yourself using the tool to decode the hieroglyphs found in Egyptian tombs. Google Arts and Culture

“The easiest way to understand hieroglyphs is to imagine that they are the ancient Egyptian equivalent of emojis,” Fabricius advises. So what better way to test the Play feature than by feeding the tool some modern-day emojis? I start by uploading a grinning smiley. The tool gives me a symbol of a man in a skull cap and a triangular beard, looking more impatient than joyful.

A despondent emoji gives me a hieroglyph of a man laying on his side, a cane raised to his forehead.

I then give sentences a try and type: "I need coffee."

The tool renders a set of eight hieroglyphs, including one of a cane and another of bird with a hooked beak. But the word “coffee” is greyed out. There is no hieroglyph for it, which isn’t surprising considering that coffee was discovered at least five centuries after hieroglyphs were last used.

If you're looking for a fun, novel way to text your friends, you can kill a lot of time using Fabricius. But where the app excels is in its professional use; the Work function should make it much easier for experts to efficiently decode the ancient script. It's machine-learning feature will ensure the tool only becomes more accurate and quicker with time, saving experts hours of cross-referencing and comparing myriad scripts.

However, even the tool's playful features are designed to spark interest in the ancient script. Before long, who knows, you might find yourself trying to decode the hieroglyphs found in Egyptian tombs.

Updated: July 15, 2020 08:14 PM

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