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Historians Use Microsoft AI to Resurrect Ruined Landmarks

During his work in Afganistan eight years ago, French architect Yves Ubelmann took a picture of a small village filled with mud homes. At the time he thought nothing of it, but two years later the architect would return to find that the village was completely destroyed. One of the last remaining traces of its existence was an old man who had lived there, who remembered Ubelmann taking the photo two years past.

The man expressed interest in the photo Ubelmann had taken, as expressed in an interview from Microsoft / Transform: “The picture is the only link I have to my personal history”.

The old man encouraged him to share the piece of preserved history, and it was this memory that would eventually lead Ubelmann to form Iconem, a company based in Paris that attempts to preserve monuments and locales threatened by time, nature or war by creating 3D models of them.

The company uses large numbers of drones armed with cameras to conduct its work, and has created 3D models in over 20 countries. The drones and 3D technology has been put to work repairing everything from the 100+ acre ruins of Pompeii to remnants of ancient Aryssian cities of Iraq.

The 3D models are also being shared with the public, helping teachers, students and researchers take a closer look at long-lost historical locations that are difficult to find information about.

The company has focused much of its efforts into the preservation and re-creation of all six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria, all of which have been destroyed or damaged by war. Ubelmann sees his work as an updated take on the work of his own grandfather, an architect who repaired bombed-out churches in France after World War II.

“It’s a way to keep history alive. If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you go”, Ubelmann says.

Iconem’s Chief Technology Officer, John Chemla, who processed survey data over the past two years, is shocked to see the state of these historic monuments: “It’s like you can feel the will to annihilate a culture. But you also feel the spirit of Palmyra is still there.”

Using drones to avoid latent landmines, Iconem team members took over fifty thousand photos of Palmya to construct their digital re-creations. In Syria, team members took upwards of one hundred fifty thousand photos of Crac des Chevaliers, as part of a UNESCO project to restore one of the world’s most historic Crusader castles now damaged by war.

To aid in their recreational efforts, the team have used the advanced computational power of Microsoft AI to assess damages caused by war and time, and to work hundreds of thousands of photographs into a single clean 3D model.

Before learning of and taking advantage of Microsoft AI, Chemla says the team used to do the entire process by hand, a painstaking and slow ritual that cost them many hours.

Iconem’s work is also being used to help prevent future attacks on these monuments, as clues garnered from the images are so detailed that they can be used to expose tunnels used by architectural looters and pick out when something has gone missing from a ruined site.

Iconem shared their work in the Grand Palaris Hall in Paris, filling one very immersed viewer, Leen Toukatli, with hope for the project’s future:

“With the technology, we can preserve and rebuild our history. The history is part of us, part of every Syrian, part of our country. By preserving history, you are preserving humanity.”

Iconem is still very active in their quest to capture and preserve destroyed monuments around the world. Learn more about the team and their efforts by checking out their Twitter, Instagram, team blog and Facebook pages.


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