Google, the wannabe Egyptologist

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Sensational article by Hagar Hosny in Al-Monitor (7/23/20):

"Google presents new tool to decode hieroglyphics:  Google has created a new tool to translate hieroglyphics into English and Arabic at the stroke of a key."

It starts like this:

In a July 15 press release, Google announced the launch of a new tool that uses artificial intelligence to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and translate them into Arabic and English.

Google said that the tool, dubbed Fabricius, provides an interactive experience for people from all over the world to learn about hieroglyphics, in addition to supporting and facilitating the efforts of Egyptologists and raising awareness about the history and heritage of ancient Egyptian civilization.

“We are very excited to be launching this new tool that can make it easier to access and learn about the rich culture of ancient Egypt. For over a decade, Google has been capturing imagery of cultural and historical landmarks across the region,” Chance Coughenour, program manager at Google Arts and Culture, said in the statement.

Fabricius is available for free on the Google Arts and Culture platform, which encourages users to learn about arts, heritage and cultural landmarks from over 2,000 cultural institutions around the world. Anyone can interact with and explore these landmarks and treasures through virtual or augmented reality technologies, in addition to high-quality images and other interactive experiences.

Now, I don't want to pour cold water on the feverish dreams of anyone who was hoping to use Fabricius to become an overnight Egyptologist, but I haven't seen any evidence that the new Google tool is more than a device for learning about hieroglyphs and playing with them.  In the hands of qualified, accomplished Egyptologists, it might also be used to assist them in their work, but it certainly cannot replace what only professionals who have immersed themselves in the study of the language and the script for years can accomplish.

I suspect that countless museums have already provided such "interactive" experiences with hieroglyphics, though doubtless on a much smaller scale and with less recognition capability than the Google tool.


Selected readings


[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. martin schwartz said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 4:45 pm

    I like the name Hagar Hosny in context. Hagar was, as per Genesis,
    the mother of the Arab people. The throne of Darius, found in Susa but destined for Egypt,
    has hieroglyphic naming of the peoples of the Persian Empire;
    each ethnonym is in a cartouche borne aloft by a squatting steriotyped picture of the ethnos involved; for Arabia (Old Persian Arabaya)
    the cartouche reads, in hieroglyphs, h-g-r "Hagar".
    Well, that does seem to be the name of an important Arab tribe back then.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 5:25 pm

    Thanks, Martin.

    I quite liked the sound of the name Hagar Hosny myself.

  3. Viseguy said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 7:17 pm

    Odd that Google chose a Latin name (meaning "craftsman") for an ancient-Egyptian tool. If they wanted a name with that meaning that trips off the tongue, why not حرفي (harfi)?

    (Suggestion courtesy of Google Translate; IANA Arabic speaker)

  4. Chris Button said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 10:20 pm

    Might we expect oracle bones next? There's quite a few I've been struggling to decipher :)

  5. David Marjanović said,

    July 23, 2020 @ 10:37 pm

    Fabricius must be one of these people, though it's not obvious to me which one.

  6. Thomas Rees said,

    July 24, 2020 @ 3:07 am

    @David Marjanović:

    Eric Schmidt, CEO/chairman of Google, then Alphabet?

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    July 24, 2020 @ 3:52 am

    Did anyone else get as far as attempting to use the so-called "desktop-only set of tools" ? I tried but gave up. First of all, it does not appear to be a "desktop-only set of tools" (or "workbench")"at all, but rather a web interface, and when it came to the tutorial I was soon completely lost. There was a downward pointing arrow at the bottom of frame 1 which took me to frame 2, but that was the last visible navigation aid. Thereafter I appeared to need to use the scroll bar, but by what amount was completely unclear as frames appeared seemingly at random with no obvious way to advance to a complete new frame other than by trial and error. One of the worst user experiences of my life.

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