Our larger mission is to help make the full record for humanity as intellectually accessible as possible to every human being, providing information adapted to as many linguistic and cultural backgrounds as possible. Our work in the 2008-09 academic year focuses upon the three most widespread classical languages of the Mediterranean world: Greek, Latin, and Arabic. Many readers familiar with Greek and Latin do not realize that early Islamic scholars were the most advanced classicists of their time. In some cases, Greek scholarship re-entered the West through the circulation of Arabic translations and some ancient Greek works now exist only in the Arabic translations that Islamic scholars produced. This work should, however, be seen within the context of our broader mission and the more than twenty years of research that preceded it. Augmenting access to the three classical languages represents only one component, however significant, in the network of resources that will make the full human record accessible in more ways and to wider audiences than ever before. Classicists and the scholars of the Western world can only contribute to a part of this vast goal.
The Mission of Perseus
Our larger mission is to make the full record of humanity - linguistic sources, physical artifacts, historical spaces - as intellectually accessible as possible to every human being, regardless of linguistic or cultural background. Of course, such a mission can never be fully realized any more than we can reach the stars by which we guide the twisting paths and blind allies though the world around us. Similar instincts motivated scholars at the library at Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE, the Arab translators of Greek at Baghdad in the 9th century CE, the entrepreneurial printers of Greek and Latin in 15th century Italy, and the 19th century German scholars who built the infrastructure on which 20th century scholarship depended. None of these groups of scholars realized, of course, the fullest vision of universal knowledge that moved them. But that idealized vision allowed each to change the worlds in which they lived and carry humanity a little farther. We do not know what form such fundamental instruments as editions, lexica, encyclopedias, atlases, diagrams, museum catalogues, and archaeological site reports will assume, but we know that the infrastructure that we design now will materially enable or constrict how the next generation will be able to read languages from the past, scrutinize ancient artifacts, and explore the historical spaces.
Perseus has a particular focus upon the Greco-Roman world and upon classical Greek and Latin, but the larger mission provides the distant, but fixed star by which we have charted our path for over two decades. Early modern English, the American Civil War, the History and Topography of London, the History of Mechanics, automatic identification and glossing of technical language in scientific documents, customized reading support for Arabic language, and other projects that we have undertaken allow us to maintain a broader focus and to demonstrate the commonalities between Classics and other disciplines in the humanities and beyond. At a deeper level, collaborations with colleagues outside of classical studies make good on the claim that a classical education generally provides those critical skills and that intellectual adaptability that we claim to instill in our students. We offer the combination of classical and non-classical projects that we pursue as one answer to those who worry that a classical education will leave them or their children with narrow, idiosyncratic skills.
Within this larger mission, we focus on three categories of access:
Human readable information: digitized images of objects, places, inscriptions, and printed pages, geographic information, and other digital representations of objects and spaces. This layer of functionality allows us to call up information relevant to a longitude and latitude coordinate or a library call number. In this stage digital representations provide direct access to the physical senses of actual people in particular places and times. In some cases (such as high resolution, multi-spectral imaging), digital sources already provide better physical access than has ever been feasible when human beings had direct contact with the physical artifact.
Machine actionable knowledge: catalogue records, encyclopedia articles, lexicon entries, and other structured information sources. Physical access can serve our senses but provides no information about what we are encountering - in effect, physical access is like visiting a historical site about which we may know nothing and where any visible documentation is in a language that we cannot understand. Machine actionable knowledge allows us to retrieve information about what we are viewing. Thus, if we encounter a page from a Greek manuscript of Homer, we could at this stage find cleanly printed modern editions of the Greek, modern language translations, commentaries and other background information about the passage on that manuscript page. If we moved through a virtual Acropolis, we could retrieve background information about the buildings and the sculpture.
Machine generated knowledge: By analyzing existing information automated systems can produce new knowledge. Machine actionable knowledge allows, for example, us to look up a dictionary entry (e.g., facio, "to do, make") in a dictionary or to find pre-existing translations for a passage in Latin or Greek. Machine generated knowledge allows a machine to recognize that fecisset is a pluperfect subjunctive form of facio and to provide reading support where there is no pre-existing human translation. Such reading support might include full machine translation but also finer grained services such as word and phrase translation (e.g., recognizing whether orationes in a given context more likely corresponds to English "speeches," "prayers" or some other term), syntactic analysis (e.g., recognizing that orationes in a given passage is the object of a given verb), named entity identification (e.g., identifying Antonium in a given passage as a personal name and then as a reference to Antonius the triumvir).