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Copiale Cipher: How a secret society's code was finally cracked

Copiale Cipher: Computer scientists have cracked the code of the Copiale Cipher, an 18th-century manuscript of a German secret society known as the 'Oculist Order.'

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"When you get a new code and look at it, the possibilities are nearly infinite," Knight said. "Once you come up with a hypothesis based on your intuition as a human, you can turn over a lot of grunt work to the computer."

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These findings "may help trace the development of political ideas and the advancement of ranks within secret societies," Knight told LiveScience. As to why this secret society might have focused on the eye, "the eye is part of the symbology of secret societies," he explained.

More unsolved encryptions

Knight is now targeting other encrypted messages, including ciphers sent by the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who sent taunting messages to the press and has never been caught. He is also applying his computer-assisted decryption software to other famous unsolved codes such as the last section of "Kryptos," an encrypted message carved into a granite sculpture on the grounds of the CIA headquarters, and the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document that has baffled professional cryptographers for decades.

However, the trickiest puzzle of all for Knight may be everyday speech. He is one of the world's leading experts on machine translation, teaching computers to turn Chinese into English, or Arabic into Korean.

"Translation remains a tough challenge for artificial intelligence," said Knight, whose translation software has been adopted by Apple and Intel, among other companies.

Knight is approaching translation as a cryptographic problem. As such, research into cracking the ciphers of obscure secret societies could improve human language translation, and possibly lead to the ability to translate languages not currently spoken by humans, including ancient languages and animal communication. [Read: Dead Languages Reveal a Lost World]

"We are exploring how to make use of cryptographic techniques to make better language translation software," Knight said.

The scientists detailed their work in June at a meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Portland Ore.

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