Using machine translation techniques to attack ciphers reveals secrets of ancient German opthalmology cult

A team of Swedish and American researchers used machine translation techniques to crack an 18th century cipher used by a secret society. The approach — presented to the Association for Computational Linguistics in a paper called The Copiale Cipher (PDF) — treated the encrypted text as a foreign language and used techniques similar to those employed by Babelfish and Google Translate to derive the cleartext.

Discovered in an academic archive in the former East Germany, the elaborately bound volume of gold and green brocade paper holds 75,000 characters, a perplexing mix of mysterious symbols and Roman letters. The name comes from one of only two non-coded inscriptions in the document.

Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, collaborated with Beata Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden to decipher the first 16 pages. They turn out to be a detailed description of a ritual from a secret society that apparently had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology.

(via Reddit)